More than any other member of Maine’s Congressional Delegation, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has found herself under intense scrutiny in her home state.
Joining Maine Public’s Radio’s call-in program Maine Calling Wednesday, Collins attracted protesters outside the Bangor studios and elsewhere. She used the platform to try to allay concerns from some Mainers about the new president, but she also had to answer to her some of her increasingly vocal critics.
Collins has been in Congress since 1997. Three presidents have come and gone, along with multiple wars, economic booms and collapses. Those significant events have shaped opinions and political divisions, but Collins says the election of President Donald Trump has yielded something she has never seen before.
“I have never seen our country and polarized and divided as it is right now. And that troubles me,” she says.
A divided country has been increasing difficult for Collins to navigate. Her political career was constructed on middle ground that seems to be shrinking.
She deemed Trump unqualified for the presidency last year, angering the Right. She’s one of just two Republicans to oppose two of his cabinet picks. But that hasn’t curbed the discontent among activists on the Left.
The protests, so-called open air town halls, were organized by Mainers for Accountable Leadership, a progressive group pressuring members of Maine’s Congressional Delegation to resist the Trump presidency. Cecile Thornton of Auburn was among a group of about 50 who gathered in Lewiston to urge Collins to hold a public town hall meeting.
“We need to feel like she’s representing us and we really don’t feel that she is,” she says.
Thornton’s concerns mirror those of others, vocalized in previous demonstrations and social media.
“She seems to be playing both sides of the coin and it’s irritating to those of us who are aware of that. We want to call her out on it,” she says.
Activists like Thornton have been particularly concerned that Collins made political calculations in opposing Trump’s cabinet picks, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Collins was a vocal opponent of DeVos and voted against her. But she has also been criticized for allowing DeVos’ confirmation to move forward out of committee. When challenged again on the issue, Collins gave a familiar answer.
“I believe that each and every senator should have the right to vote on a cabinet nominee,” she says.
Collins’ belief in the rules and traditions of the Senate is well documented. But that adherence to tradition is being tested in the current climate.
On Tuesday she held a 40-minute meeting with the group that has vowed to hold her accountable. And when it was over, Collins was blasted on social media for asking the group to help direct comments to her website so that other constituents could get through on the phone.
While all members of Maine’s delegation are under pressure, Collins seems to be bearing the brunt. Currently, no other member is under the same pressure to hold a town hall meeting. Such meetings, designed to replicate the tea party forums from eight years ago, have generated raucous crowds for other Republican members of Congress in other states. In contrast to other members of the delegation, Collins has used the current break in Congress for multiple media appearances and interviews.
The scrutiny could be attributed to her senior position in the Senate and her potential influence on key policies in the Republican controlled Congress. But Kevin Simpson, who turned out for the open air town hall in Lewiston, has another idea.
“Lower expectations,” he says.
Lower expectations, that is, for Simpson’s other representative in Congress, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. Simpson says Collins is more rational, persuadable.
Those traits have made Collins one of the most popular senators in the country. But that hasn’t spared her from the heightened scrutiny confronting other, more traditional Republicans.
This story has been updated to correct the number of Trump cabinet picks that Collins has opposed.