People who expected Senator Susan of Collins, allegedly one of two remaining Republican moderates in the Senate, to save us from the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, have not studied Collins’s record with sufficient care.
The Maine senator has reduced the choreography of legislative head-fakes to a sublime art, in order to preserve her bogus reputation as an independent minded centrist. When a contentious issue arises, Collins will elaborately explain that she hasn’t made up her mind yet. She needs to give the issue careful study.
And then, wondrously, after very careful and well advertised research, the senator almost always votes with Mitch McConnell. Funny how her study leads to that conclusion.
She is especially loyal to her party when her vote counts. She has voted to confirm virtually all Trump nominees. Collins also voted for the Trump tax bill (which passed 51-49) and for the confirmation of Justice Neal Gorsuch.
Thus last week, she joined two other Republicans in calling for what turned out to be a rigged FBI inquiry. She then voted to confirm Kavanaugh—not with ambivalence but almost giddy enthusiasm, in an elaborate disquisition on his appellate decisions that read as if had been based on an adoring memo from his law clerks.
In her oration on Kavanaugh, she did not present her conclusion as a close or remotely difficult question. To hear Collins tell it, the judge was the most even-handed and brilliant jurist since King Solomon.
In 2017, according to a tabulation by CNN, Collins voted with her party 87 percent of the time. The average Republican-backed GOP caucus position is 96 percent of the time.
For the most part, the exceptions where she broke ranks were not decisive, though one important vote where she did defy the Republican leadership was her vote (with John McCain and Lisa Murkowski) in September 2017 to save the Affordable Care Act.
Over the years, as the ranks of Republican moderates have dwindled and Tea Party types have enforced discipline, Collins has become far less of a maverick. Under Obama’s presidency, Collins voted with Republicans only about half the time, compared to almost 90 percent today.
What’s at work here?
Three things. First, Republicans have become far more unified, in the country and in the Senate, as the Trump amen-chorus. Second, McConnell plays serious hardball to enforce caucus discipline. But the biggest influence may well be Collins’ fear of the Tea-Party far-right in Maine.
Maine has twice elected a far-right governor, the thuggish Paul LePage, who prefigured Trump. LePage, who steps down at the end of this year, did not win a majority of votes either in 2010 or 2014. Given Maine’s unfortunate habit of spoilers throwing elections to Republicans, LePage squeaked in both times, in three-way contests.
Maine as a whole is not a far-right state. Its other senator is Angus King, a moderately liberal independent who caucuses with the Democrats. To fill its two House seats, Maine consistently sends one progressive Democrat, and sometimes two. But the Tea Party right is in fact a majority of the Maine Republican Party.
Thus Collins, according to my sources, felt she had more to fear when she runs for re-election in 2020 from a Republican primary challenger than from a Democrat.
She is broadly popular as a Maine icon, and that fear may well be exaggerated.
She will likely face a fight first in the Republican primary, and then from newly energized Democrats, but Collins is still the odds-on favoriteto win re-election.
When Collins does break ranks with the Senate leadership, as in her vote to save the Affordable Care Act, it’s often because the vote is popular back home in Maine. In this case, Medicaid expansion has broad public backing despite Governor LePage’s efforts to delay it.
To put it charitably, the popular Collins could afford to take more risks on behalf of whatever principles she still professes. In the Kavanaugh affair, the senator was far from a profile in courage.