Politics

Too Little, Too Late

Susan Collins’ position on this SCOTUS nominee doesn’t seem likely to win back the voters she lost after her Kavanaugh endorsement.

Susan Collins sits at a desk and speaks into a microphone.
Sen. Susan Collins speaks at a hearing of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Sept. 23, 2020, in D.C. Alex Edelman/Pool/Getty Images

Sen. Susan Collins was already in a tight spot. The Republican from Maine was trailing her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, in nearly every major poll. She was struggling to distance herself from Donald Trump, who earned a 59 percent “unfavorable” rating from Mainers in a recent poll. And then Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement within hours that promised, “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.” It sounded like he knew he had enough votes to push another Supreme Court nominee through. Political observers and concerned Americans immediately turned to the Republican senators running tight reelection races, including Collins: Would they support the unpopular president, defying the precedent set by McConnell himself when he blocked hearings on Merrick Garland for the entire last year of Barack Obama’s presidency? Or would they try to appeal to centrist and center-left voters by sitting this one out?

The day after Ginsburg’s death, Collins issued her first statement on the vacant court seat. She used the most ambiguous possible terms: “I do not believe that the Senate should vote on the nominee prior to the election,” she said, adding that “the decision on a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court should be made by the President who is elected on November 3rd.” The statement contained one believe, two shoulds, and no mention of what Collins would actually do if Trump’s nominee came up for a vote. It was baggy enough to accommodate hopes on both sides of the aisle.

It wasn’t until three days later, hours after Sen. Mitt Romney announced that he would support a preelection vote on a Trump nominee—locking in an all-but-certain GOP victory—that Collins took a concrete stance. “My statement was a model of clarity,” she said, as if those who’d noticed her noncommitment were the disingenuous ones. “I made it very clear, yes, that I did not think there should be a vote prior to the election. And if there is one, I would oppose the nominee.”

No part of this Collins news cycle came as a surprise to the Maine voters who’ve turned against her in the years since Trump’s election. Not her initial opacity, phrased as fair-minded deliberation. Not the fact that it took her two statements over three days to deliver anything resembling an actionable position on an issue. Not her implied admonishment of those constituents who’d asked for a clearer explanation. Certainly not that she landed on a decision that aligned with the Democrats—and a strong majority of Mainers—only after Sen. Mitch McConnell had secured enough GOP votes to confirm a Trump nominee without her.

Some of those voters say this episode has been a perfect microcosm of Collins’ tenure as they’ve come to understand it. “Collins was perfectly teed up to do exactly what we thought she would: find her moral center only after McConnell found his votes,” said Karin Leuthy, 48, a Maine Democrat who voted for Collins in 2014 and now runs a progressive advocacy group that’s working to oust the senator. “We have her number. We know all her moves.”

Conventional wisdom has long held that conservative voters are more motivated by the judiciary than liberal ones. But in the past few years, as the ideological balance of the Supreme Court has shifted, that notion has been proved wrong: Democrats are now more driven by court concerns than Republicans are. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll of likely Maine voters, 19 percent of Democrats ranked the Supreme Court as the top issue that mattered to their choice of senator. Only health care netted more first-place picks.

In this climate, with this president, and with polls showing that Mainers clearly want the winner of the November election to pick the next justice, who was Collins’ tortured, pseudo-diplomatic response for? Most Maine Democratic voters—39 percent of whom supported Collins in her last election—have given up on the idea that moderate Republican are allies in the Trump era. Is there anything Collins could do during this SCOTUS nomination process to win back Democrats’ support? “If she spent every last minute of her time authentically trying to convince her Republican colleagues to join her in opposing the nomination, and if she gave an impassioned speech in support of Joe Biden, maybe we would tone down some of our criticism,” Leuthy told me. “But we’d still vote against her.”

Collins won’t say so directly this cycle, but it’s obvious that she isn’t a huge fan of Trump. The senator wrote an op-ed against him in the runup to the 2016 election, and if she didn’t like him then, three years of his high crimes and misdemeanors can’t have converted her. But if Collins were to out-and-out admit her distaste for the president, she would reap minimal benefits. Some avid Trump supporters in Maine, whose allegiance to the president outweighs their appreciation for control of the Senate, might abandon her completely. Whether they’d be willing to give up the Senate out of spite is anyone’s guess, but Collins’ social media pages are full of Maine Republicans demanding she vote to seat Trump’s nominee, the radically conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett. Another complication: Maine’s ranked-choice voting system means these dissatisfied Republicans could cast their vote for the conservative (and eccentric anti-masker) independent Max Linn and list Collins as their second choice, which would be counted only if no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes. But will Collins’ refusal to vote for Barrett before the election, when the GOP can easily do it without her, push any significant number of Maine Republicans over the edge? In the Quinnipiac survey, just 9 percent of Republicans placed the Supreme Court at the top of the list of issues that matter to their Senate votes. And even if Collins won’t endorse the president, her campaign has been boasting to Republican voters that she’s voted with Trump 94 percent of the time. They know she’s on their side when it counts.

The last group, then, is independents—who actually outnumber registered Republicans in Collins’ state. Several recent polls have shown them leaning toward Gideon by a comfortable margin. And a recent Suffolk University–Boston Globe poll found that self-described “moderate” voters prefer Gideon to Collins by a margin of 15 percentage points. Just 37 percent support Collins, down from 72 percent of “moderate” voters who cast their ballots for her in 2014. This used to be Collins’ constituency: not the dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, not the rabid Trump-boosting conservatives, but the people in the middle who were drawn in by the idea of a plain-spoken, evenhanded legislator who was willing to break from her party when it diverged from her values. But the sight of Collins tiptoeing around Trump—a president she plainly dislikes—at a moment when our very democracy is at stake has disabused these voters of their image of Collins. They aren’t likely to be dissuaded by a last-minute show of mettle.

Part of that clarity has come from the numerous efforts of Maine activists who oppose Collins. Many are former Collins voters themselves, people who spent weeks pressuring Collins to vote against Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. After Trump nominated Kavanaugh, Leuthy teamed up with a few issue-based advocacy groups in Maine to research Kavanaugh’s judicial history and prepare a briefing packet for Collins that opposed the judge based on the qualities Collins had said she looked for in a judicial nominee. On two occasions, the cohort met with members of Collins’ staff to review the research. Leuthy was gutted when Collins voted for Kavanaugh anyway, which is why she, along with many Mainers, has now spent a considerable part of the past two years agitating against her in an effort to flip the Senate seat.

This time, Leuthy isn’t even bothering with a direct appeal to the senator. “We don’t have time to play those reindeer games,” she said. “If we want to honor RBG, we need to demonstrate that we can deliver the Senate and the White House. There’s not much we can do to stop Trump from getting his Supreme Court pick, but we can sure as hell make sure he never gets any more.” Mainers’ close reading of Collins’ statement includes the observation that she did not note how she would vote in a lame-duck period (hers or the president’s). “I think it would be fair to say that distrust of Senator Collins is high and that we parse every statement she makes very carefully,” James Cook, 49, a Maine progressive activist, told me. He and his peers have gotten wise to Collins’ techniques for obscuring her positions on issues, and in this case, in both her statements, she left “a loophole large enough to drive a truck through.”

But Mainers realize that McConnell has the votes anyway, and many view Barrett’s nomination as a done deal. So, they’ve begun to adjust their focus accordingly. Some are already preparing to push Gideon to support adding seats to the Supreme Court if Gideon beats Collins in November. Others are wary of making any early demands of the Democratic candidate before she’s clinched the seat. (Gideon has said she will “evaluate any proposals based on whether they’ll help us return the judiciary to an independent body free from politics” but has “doubts that expanding the Supreme Court would do that.”) Some are still holding out hope that Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, can be prodded to abandon his generally agreeable demeanor and take drastic, possibly controversial measures—like holding more impeachment hearings—to stall the Barrett vote until the election has been decided, though they don’t all agree on which tactics are advisable, or feasible.

An Indivisible chapter in Bangor held a Zoom meeting on Sept. 23 to decide how to respond. Someone suggested holding a protest on the day Ginsburg was set to lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, but another member thought it might seem disrespectful to politicize her death on that particular day. “What would RBG want us to do?” someone wondered. Several people responded with gusto: “Raise hell!” Linda Mosley, 59, urged the group to think again. Ginsburg would “want us to raise hell, but she’d want us to be strategic,” Mosley said, pointing out that the main goal of their action wasn’t to pressure Collins but to win over other Maine voters who might be undecided on the Senate or presidential race. The group had opened their meeting by reading a few quotes from Ginsburg, including this one: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

The chapter ended up doing it both ways: On the day Ginsburg lay in state, members created a street-side memorial full of flowers for the late justice and sent sympathy cards containing her dying wish (“that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed”) to the offices of both Collins and King. Two days later, they held a “No Confirmation Before Inauguration” rally, taking care to focus on the illegitimacy of a justice seated weeks before a presidential election that will likely be contested, rather than their specific objections to Barrett.

But even with all this action, no one is spending much time on Collins herself. She’s already committed to doing the thing most Mainers want her to do—for now, anyway—and the GOP doesn’t need her to get its way. But even though she’s on their side this time, sort of, they’ve lost faith in Collins’ convincibility and her willingness to take bold action to stop Trump. So they’re fully focused on replacing her. In the last Supreme Court fight, Maine activists perceived Collins as holding an inordinate amount of power. In this one, they’ve all but written her off as irrelevant.