As a Mainer, I’ve always adored Senator Susan Collins. Growing up a young, liberal politico in a purple state with very little in the way of cultural diversity, Collins was the closest thing anybody had to a common sense, open-minded legislator, even with colleagues like Olympia Snowe and Mike Michaud by her side. Her stance on a woman’s right to choose and ardent defense of Medicare paint a picture of moderation that, at first glance, is hard to argue with. However, after Senator Snowe’s retirement and replacement by former Maine governor and everyone’s dream grandfather Senator Angus King, who filled the seat in 2012, Collins’ reputation as a moderate began to become more of a political fantasy than a verifiable reality.
This hollow shell moderation was made incandescently clear during the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Considered the key swing vote in what became the veritable shit show that was Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, Collins exuded an air of rationality and nonpartisan review at all times. She juxtaposed her statements of glowing confidence in the nominee’s stellar judicial record with lamenting concerns regarding the valid inkling that perhaps Kavanaugh couldn’t care less about whether a young teen in Texas has to drive four hours to go to an abortion consultation at Planned Parenthood on a school day. It’s the kind of oxymoronic yet seemingly balanced thought organization that elicits a theoretical feeling of factor-weighing that is, in practice, nothing more than covert partisan strategy masquerading as well-intentioned judgement, and indicative of any so-called moderate Republican you could name.
As much as liberals might wish to ride the fantasy of senatorial bipartisanship all the way into 2020, Collins is, at the end of the day, a Republican. A Republican who, mind you, votes in line with President Trump almost eighty percent of the time. While that isn’t as unabashedly partisan as Senator Lindsey “I screamed at the top of my lungs on live television about how much I resent the Democrats” Graham of South Carolina, yet another so-called moderate who kowtows to the President’s legislative agenda a whopping eighty-nine percent of the time, it still clearly showcases her willingness to give into partisanship more often than not.
It’s not as if Senator Collins, in her mind, was giving the proverbial middle finger to women in Maine and across America by allowing Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court. But the messaging from her speech and from her months of showy pseudo-contemplation was not effective at assuaging many people’s concerns regarding her willingness to blindly trust that abortion rights are not a blink of an eye away from disappearing.
Collins didn’t make the decision to vote to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on a whim, either, despite many Democrats pining to paint Senator Collins as a reckless, petty woman who has ignorantly forsaken her own gender, so she can tow the party line like Hugh Jackman in the opening scene of Les Miserables. But that just isn’t true. Susan Collins knew exactly what she was doing when she voted for Kavanaugh.
Her popularity in Maine pre-Kavanaugh was also that of a deity. Both Democratic and Republican voters had no quarrels tossing their support behind her. But her true electoral base are those with conservative mindsets. She herself was born and raised in Caribou, Maine, which – if you couldn’t tell from the Podunk town name explicitly referencing a woodland creature frequently found in temperate deciduous forests – is in Northern Maine, a conservative region that needs no explanation beyond its fondness of guns and distinct lack of people who aren’t old and white. And those old, white people love voting. To be fair, though, there is little more to do up there than vote. Northern Maine is also the de facto geographic area that makes up Maine’s second congressional district, which has produced and maintained New England’s only GOP congressman, Bruce Poliquin. If Collins ended up voting against Kavanaugh, there may have been a decent likelihood that she would have been cursed with a primary challenger during her fourth reelection bid in 2020.
However, Senator Collins’ play to the base could prove more damaging to her seat’s long-term sustainability as an easy GOP snap-up than one would generally anticipate. While Collins may be heavily entrenched, her detractors are optimistic. So optimistic, in fact, that they organized a crowdfunding campaign that, over the course of the Kavanaugh confirmation process, raised nearly four million dollars with the intention of giving it to her Democratic challenger in 2020 if she decided to vote in favor of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. And judging by her decision on Saturday, that fundraising effort and others like it are likely to continue.
There is also no guarantee or true indication that now-Justice Kavanaugh will uphold his end of the abortion bargain, which is Collins’ true miscalculation. As she reiterated – to a degree of redundancy only found in as equal number as President Trump’s recycling of words from his evidently limited Twitter vocabulary – from his original testimony on the subject and from the meeting that she had with him during his confirmation process, she sincerely believes (or at least wishes us to believe sincerely) that Kavanaugh has no plans to overturn Roe v. Wade, as he believes it to be “established precedent” and “settled law.” You know, just how Plessy v. Ferguson was established precedent and settled law for nearly sixty years, not to mention the key to unleashing the true malevolent power of Jim Crow over those pesky, freedom-seeking African-Americans.
In his speech on the Senate floor on the eve of the nefarious confirmation vote, Angus King poignantly analyzed Brett Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophies far beyond how much Senator Collins seemed to and arrived at a heart-wrenching and irrepressible conclusion. In the speech, Senator King had this to say:
“[Kavanaugh has] a very expansive view of what states can do to limit your rights and a narrow view of what federal government can do to protect your health, welfare, the environment, you name it… [Kavanaugh says] unenumerated rights could be recognized by the courts ‘only if the asserted right was rooted in the nation’s history and tradition…’ In other words, you can’t assert a right unless you can show that the framers thought about it when they passed the amendments… That approach freezes rights in history and allows no room for the evolution of ethics and morality… I give it a 99 percent chance that [Kavanaugh] guts Roe v. Wade… He said ‘Roe v. Wade is a precedent.’ That’s like saying ‘this is a chair’,” King grabs the chair next to his podium, lifts it slightly, then puts it back down, “That’s a statement of fact. That’s not a value, that’s not a philosophy; that’s a statement of fact… That is not anything that gives you an indication of what he says he’s gonna do… So when somebody tells me it’s ‘a precedent’ or it’s ‘settled law’, that doesn’t convince me of much.”
And he could not be more correct. Senator Collins’ decision was a partisan one, and she knew it was, so she tried to hide it as best she could with rhetoric that made her decision seem well fleshed out and a by-the-books rational judgement call, when, in reality, her calculations were not about what’s best for her country, but what was best for her prospects of reelection. She knows Maine Democrats probably don’t have what it takes to unseat her two years from now, no matter how unpopular this one decision may have been or how much anger money they’re able to cobble together. They’ll give her a run for her money, but Collins is a Maine staple, like lobsters, blueberries, maple syrup, pine trees, and being old and white, and such a thing will not change, barring any more grievously partisan slip-ups.
No, the real loss that Collins will feel is buyer’s remorse. At the low, low cost of practically all her political capital that had been built up with the Democratic electorate in Maine over her almost twenty years in the Senate, she has been a key player in seating a Supreme Court Justice who, as Senator King laid out in gruesome detail, will almost certainly use the newly established conservative Supreme Court majority to chip away at a woman’s right to regulate her own body, to a point where women across America will glimpse as nostalgically in the past at Roe v. Wade as elderly Southerners do at Plessy v. Ferguson.
I will always love and admire and respect Senator Susan Collins, but being the standard bearer for moderate Republicanism does not mean giving into shortsightedness and partisanship when it marginally benefits you in an election that’s two years away, especially at the likely cost of a women’s issue you feel so strongly about.