Susan Collins’ Choice

Brett Kavanaugh will be a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. If the Maine senator helps confirm him, her political career could be in the balance.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins meets with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill on Aug. 21.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins meets with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill on Aug. 21. Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Reuters.

Susan Collins talks a big game about reproductive rights. The Republican senator from Maine has said, for instance, that she wants her party to be “as synonymous with protecting a woman’s right to choose as the Democratic Party is with expanded government or raising taxes.” While her party certainly hasn’t met that standard, Collins—who has a 72 percent rating on Planned Parenthood’s legislative scorecard—has walked the walk more often than not, defying the GOP by voting in favor of women’s health care. Recently, she drew praise from abortion-rights advocates for splitting from Republicans to reject a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, backing up her vote with a strong defense of public funding for Planned Parenthood.

If Collins votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court —and there is every indication that she will—she can kiss that well-earned goodwill goodbye. While Collins has voted to confirm other conservative nominees to the Supreme Court, including Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and John Roberts, the Kavanaugh nomination has the potential to have much more dire consequences, given that the balance of the court is now at risk. Abortion-rights activists who have helped shore up her pro-choice reputation likely won’t forgive her for voting for a justice widely believed to be the fifth vote the Supreme Court needs to gut or overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Reproductive rights organizations have worked alongside [Collins’] office to support her” when she votes against her party on issues of abortion rights, said Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, director of public policy at the nonprofit Advocates for Youth. In the past, Collins has co-sponsored and supported several bills Advocates for Youth lobbied for, including one that would have permanently eliminated the global gag rule. “If she does vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh … that would definitely be a turning point in her relationship with reproductive rights organizations and make a really big statement on what her priorities are,” said Rhodes.

It’s clear that reproductive rights groups have helped sustain Collins’ political career. More than two-thirds of Maine residents believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a larger proportion than in any other state besides New Hampshire and Vermont. (A smaller majority of the U.S. population—57 percent—says the same.) Maine likely would not have kept Collins in the Senate for 20 years without her pro-choice bona fides.

NARAL political director Nicole Brener-Schmitz told me Collins’ reputation—and her organization’s opinion of the senator—are now in the balance. “Trump made no bones about the fact that he had one litmus test, and his litmus test was [overturning] Roe, and that anyone he nominated fulfilled that,” Brener-Schmitz said. “She knows that. We know that. Her voters know that.”

NARAL doesn’t necessarily consider Collins a reliable ally—she got only a 40 percent rating on the organization’s 2017 scorecard, in large part because of her votes to confirm Trump’s Cabinet nominees and lower-court judges. In previous years, she’s gotten more validation from NARAL, if not an outright endorsement; in 2014, her most recent election year, the organization gave her a 90 percent rating. Of the two major reproductive-rights groups, Planned Parenthood has been louder in its support for Collins, in part because she’s cast several critical votes to protect its funding through Medicaid reimbursements. Planned Parenthood, which has endorsed Collins in the past, went so far as to admonish her Democratic opponent in 2014 for falsely claiming that Collins had voted to defund the group. “When it mattered most, Sen. Collins voted with us and stood with Planned Parenthood, and with women. We think it’s important that people know that,” a spokesman said at the time. (Planned Parenthood declined to comment on the record about Collins for this piece.)

Although Collins has said she will oppose any nominee who shows “hostility” toward Roe v. Wade, she seems dead-set on ignoring Trump’s explicit promise to nominate only anti-Roe judges. Instead, she has hung her support for Kavanaugh on the idea of “settled law,” and the moderate-soothing claim that nominees who say they support the supremacy of court precedent will never overturn decisions like Roe. This was an essential factor in Collins’ vote to confirm Gorsuch. “I had a very long discussion with Justice Gorsuch in my office and he pointed out to me that he is the co-author of a whole book on precedent,” she recently said. Nevertheless, in his first year on the court, Gorsuch has voted to overrule court precedent on multiple occasions, including in the Janus v. AFSCME decision that will hobble public-sector unions.

According to “a source close to Collins’ staff” who spoke to HuffPost, Collins preapproved Kavanaugh in her discussions with Trump before he officially announced the judge as his nominee. Collins’ spokeswoman says the senator never did such a thing. Nevertheless, she has already said that Kavanaugh told her he considers Roe “settled law,” which appears to be her magic phrase. That conversation, when paired with Collins’ record of confirming every single one of Trump’s radically anti-abortion lower-court nominees, suggests she doesn’t intend to make any kind of dramatic last-minute stand to protect women’s right to abortion.

Given that Republicans have such a slim majority in the Senate, Collins could almost singlehandedly torpedo Kavanaugh’s nomination. Leaving that influence on the table would be Collins’ “final betrayal” of the reproductive-rights movement, NARAL President Ilyse Hogue told HuffPost. Less than a year ago, Planned Parenthood bestowed Collins with an award honoring her place among “Republican lawmakers who champion reproductive health care issues and who fight to ensure the rights granted to women.” It’s fair to say that if Collins votes to confirm Kavanaugh, she won’t be winning any more awards from Planned Parenthood or any other pro-choice organization. “It’s very difficult to call yourself pro-choice when you are actively seating the person who has committed to overturning Roe,” Brener-Schmitz said. “That is the most basic of basics of being pro-choice: that abortion should be legal and accessible for women.”

Many of Collins’ constituents have spent the past few weeks trying to drive that message home. “If Susan Collins is truly pro-choice, she should keep Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court,” wrote Samantha Paradis, a nurse and the mayor of Belfast, Maine, in a Monday editorial in the Bangor Daily News. Activists are sending clothes hangers to her office, and Maine residents who’ve had abortions are showing up to lobby her staff. One Maine woman, an independent voter named Michelle Fish, appears in a NARAL ad currently running on Maine television stations. She details the abortion she had at age 18, when she was in “a very abusive relationship” and had to “make a choice to take care of myself.” For her two daughters, “that choice is in grave danger,” Fish says in the ad. “I voted for Sen. Collins twice, but I’m worried I won’t be able to do that again.”

Advocacy groups are already making plans to hold Collins accountable should she cast a deciding vote for Kavanaugh. When she was up for re-election in 2014, she beat her Democratic opponent by more than 36 percentage points; a few months ago, a Morning Consult poll reported that she was the country’s 11th-most popular senator. That could change if Maine voters watch her play a crucial role in decimating abortion rights in America. Well-funded reproductive-rights organizations that had no reason to waste resources on opposing an extremely popular pro-choice Republican will have a new set of calculations to consider when Collins comes back up for re-election. “If she votes to confirm [Kavanaugh], we will obviously be taking a very close look at this race in 2020,” Brener-Schmitz said. “It will absolutely be a priority of ours to be engaged in who’s being recruited into that seat.”

Collins could be ready for retirement, in which case she may see this pivotal vote as one of the final acts of her political career. Then again, Collins is only 65 and recently considered a run for governor; in all likelihood, she’ll try to stay in public office for at least a few more terms. The last time Collins ran for re-election, national Democratic fundraising groups didn’t spend a single dollar on her challenger, Shenna Bellows. If she votes to confirm Kavanaugh, they might find it worthwhile to find and fund a strong candidate to run against her next time. And if Collins runs for governor in 2022, as she opted not to do this year, a Kavanaugh vote could be a major liability for an opponent to exploit. By then, the Supreme Court will have ruled on several cases pertaining to abortion and contraception rights and access. If Kavanaugh is on the bench, the decisions will be brutal. It will be up to Democrats and reproductive-rights groups to remind Maine voters that Collins, not just Trump and Kavanaugh, is to blame.