Does Susan Collins Hate Washington Enough to Leave It?

The Maine senator is considering a bid for governor after taking a leading role in the federal fight over health care.

Sen. Susan Collins leaves the chamber on July 26 as the Republican-run Senate rejected a GOP proposal to scuttle President Obama's health care law and give Congress two years to devise a replacement.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Alex Rogers and Zach C. Cohen
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Alex Rogers and Zach C. Cohen
Aug. 10, 2017, 8 p.m.

A couple of weeks before the flickering effort to repeal and replace Obamacare finally died at the twist of John McCain’s wrist, Sen. Susan Collins announced her opposition to yet another draft. Like the others before it, the bill was crafted behind closed doors, without a hearing and largely by a select group of Republican leaders.

When asked if Republicans’ methods for trying to pass their top priority in Congress made the Maine Republican want to return home to run for governor, she said with a laugh: “That’s an excellent question.”

This fall, Collins is expected to answer it. If she decides to run for governor next year, a factor would be the decline in the effectiveness of Congress. But her role in attempting to revive it—voting to destroy the Republican health care bill in order to start a new, bipartisan process—would hurt her in the primary to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Collins’s spokesperson, Annie Clark, said the senator is “assessing where she can do the most good for the people of Maine.” Collins has “an influential role” in the Senate thanks to her seniority earned over 20 years there, but in the Blaine House, she could “work directly on issues she cares deeply about,” including job creation, education, and infrastructure, according to Clark.

Should she run, Collins would seek to replace LePage, a President Trump-like figure who has overseen New England’s worst economy and upended the state party’s image.

“On the one hand, you might say it’s such a difficult and divisive atmosphere, a change of venue would be in order—and perhaps be more effective than another venue,” said Tim Woodcock, a Collins friend and former Bangor mayor. “On the other hand, I think Senator Collins is one of those senators who tends to tamp down really heightened emotions and serve as a facilitator for communications across the aisle—and so it could be that she could see that as really reinforcing a decision to stay.”

Staying would mean at least another three years in office, as she isn’t up for reelection until 2020. But if she ran and won, Collins would be the state’s first woman governor. She would also redeem the rare political loss in her life, the 1994 gubernat­ori­al race against An­gus King, an in­de­pend­ent and her Sen­ate col­league since 2013.

“It’d be a story book thing to happen,” said Lance Dutson, a former Collins staffer and Republican strategist.

Collins work­ed for about a dozen years as a Sen­ate staffer in the 1970s and 1980s and in vari­ous ex­ec­ut­ive state roles in the 1990s. Her long ca­reer fol­lows pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of pub­lic ser­vice in her fam­ily; her fath­er was a state sen­at­or; her moth­er, a may­or. Her allies note that she’s built up goodwill among activists and donors across the state over decades, and would be the clear front-runner.

“She has done tremendous work at the grassroots level for Republicans across the state for a long time,” said Kevin Raye, a former president of the Maine Senate, who is urging Collins to run for governor. “She has campaigned for and raised money for and supported Republican candidates for local office and the Maine legislature for years.”

Along with McCain and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Collins was one of three GOP votes that helped sink the Republican health care bill this summer. Collins didn’t object only to the unprecedented, six-month process, she opposed what was perhaps the Republicans’ greatest goal besides lowering premiums: the slashing of Medicaid. After her leadership unveiled a revised bill to Collins and her colleagues in the Senate, she told the press she couldn’t support something that “would hurt the most vulnerable citizens,” as well as rural health care providers, hospitals, and nursing homes. In the end, when the Senate GOP leadership tried to pass something smaller, she opposed it, saying the bill would destabilize the market and block funding for Planned Parenthood.

The move was in keeping with the long centrist record she’s built and could help her gain the support of independents and Democrats in a general election. When she arrived at the Bangor airport after voting against the Obamacare repeal bills, travelers burst into spontaneous applause.

But her votes would also hurt her in the primary, particularly among diehard Trump and LePage supporters. The governor pledged last month to oppose her candidacy, saying Collins would “back down” if LePage’s supporters tell her, “we don’t want you, you’re not winning the primary.” Days later, he wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal calling Collins and King “downright dangerous” for preventing the rollback of Medicaid. LePage argued that Maine’s expansion of Medicaid over the years “saddled” the country with debt and didn’t improve health outcomes.

The governor is still popular among his base. An automated poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found both Trump and LePage enjoying approval ratings north of 70 percent among Republican primary voters, whom Collins would have to win over first. The poll’s director, Tom Jensen, said Tuesday he could not disclose who paid for the survey.

LePage’s former health and human services commissioner, Mary Mayhew, is the only major Republican in the race for governor so far and led Collins by 11 points in the same PPP poll, even though Mayhew was unknown to half of its respondents.

It’s clear that if Collins gets in, Mayhew will highlight the senator’s stance on the Republican health care bill. Mayhew, a former Democrat, said in an interview that she “totally opposed” Collins’s position and agreed with LePage that Medicaid expansion prioritizes the healthy over the sick.

“It is not in the best interest of Maine to protect Obamacare,” Mayhew said. “There are devastating consequences for the state if Medicaid is expanded.”

Strategists from both parties suggested that Democrats are well-positioned to win with a field led by state Attorney General Janet Mills, former state Speaker Mark Eves, and Adam Cote, an attorney and veteran with the staff and fundraising to mount a credible bid. Looking at a potential primary matchup, some Collins supporters, including Dutson, argue that Mayhew would lose to a Democrat like Mills or Cote.

“I think that she would be in a strong position to continue the gains that we’ve seen at the state level, in terms of strengthening our economy and our competitiveness as a state,” Raye said. “And I’d hate to see those gains lost with a Democratic governor.”

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