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WATCH: Collins Not Running for Governor, 'More To Be Done in Senate'

Brian Bechard
Maine Public
Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins announces Friday that she will not seek the Republican nomination in Maine's 2018 governor's race.

ROCKPORT, Maine — The pull of legacy and a chance to take the reins of state government were not enough to convince Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to run for governor.

Collins told a crowd of roughly 200 business leaders and a throng of local and national media at the Samoset Resort in Rockport on Friday that she will not seek the Republican nomination to run for governor next year. Instead, Collins said she will remain in the Senate at least until her current term ends in 2020.

“This decision has not been any easy one. Ultimately I’ve been guided by my sense of where I can do the most good for Maine and the nation,” she said. “I have concluded that the best way I can contribute to these priorities is to remain a member of the Senate.”

Collins’ announcement was met with a standing ovation by the crowd.

Her announcement ends widespread speculation that the 20-year veteran of the Senate would return to Maine and seek to finish her political career in the governor’s mansion — a position denied to her in 1994 when she finished third in a five-way race. Such a move would also send shock waves through the Senate, jeopardizing the GOP’s chances of holding her seat after her term ends in 2020 and marking another defection from the senate Republican conference amid the populist uprising fueled by President Donald Trump and his allies.

Prior to her announcement on Friday, Collins, 64, seemed genuinely conflicted about a gubernatorial bid. Joining the race would have given her the chance to become Maine’s first woman governor and avenge her only electoral defeat. Additionally, Collins would have control of the state bureaucracy, potentially using it and the bully pulpit of the governor’s office to advance a policy agenda to work on initiatives that could improve Maine’s economic outlook.

Collins has won her four senate contests by an average margin of 20 percentage points by drawing support across the political spectrum. She would have been the clear front-runner in a governor’s race currently filled with lesser known candidates.

But a gubernatorial bid by Collins would also have been risky — the biggest threat coming from within her own party. While the Republican from Caribou remains one of the most popular senators in the country, her support among a Republican party apparatus aligned with hardliners like Gov. Paul LePage appears to be on the decline.

Recent opinion polls released by partisan sources have offered conflicting evidence of how Collins would fare in a Republican primary contest. But there is little question that LePage would have opposed her even though she twice lent her support in his bids to take, and keep, the governor’s office.

LePage has repeatedly bashed Collins, declaring nearly a year ago that “she’s done in the Republican party” because she refused to support Trump last year. The governor has since used his weekly radio addresses and conservative radio appearances to berate Collins over her opposition to two controversial bills repealing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

LePage’s style and ideological bent is in sharp contrast with the more pragmatic, measured Collins. Nonetheless, he has fundamentally altered the state’s political landscape, punishing Democrats and Republicans alike with rhetoric and deeds.

A Collins governorship could have arguably reversed that trend. Prior to her announcement, she said she wanted to “heal Maine,” a comment read by some as a swipe at LePage’s polarizing style.

Speaking to reporters after the event, Collins said LePage's repeated criticism neither bothered her, nor influenced her decision. 

But she acknowledged that there were times when she felt she might run for governor. She said she was also confident that she could win both the GOP primary and the general election. 

However, she said the issue confronting Congress "were so big," from the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, to the cost of health care. 

"I really just thought I could do most good for Maine and the nation in the Senate," she said. 

Independent U.S. Angus King, of Maine, released a statement supportive of Collins's decision. King, who defeated Collins and three other candidates to become governor in 1994, endorsed her when she ran for reelection in 2014.

And he has previously said that Collins should stay in the Senate. 

"I know Susan’s decision to continue serving Maine in the Senate was not an easy one and, not surprisingly, her announcement today reflects her commitment to putting Maine people first," he said in a statement. "The work she does for Maine – while rarely easy and often understated – is a reflection of her work ethic and her infinite energy to serve the people of our state. She has been a champion for the state of Maine for more than two decades and I consider it a great privilege to serve with her – and to be her friend."

Some of the attendees were surprised at her decision, including Ginny Ciraldo of Lincolnville.

"Well, I thought maybe she wants to stay closer to home, maybe there's a lot of unrest," she said.  "Maybe it's very stressful, but I am happy. I think she'll do alot more for the people of the country, of course, in Washington."

Kathy Bosse, who also listened to Collins' speech at the Samoset, said she was impressed with the Senator and her decision.

."I think that people on both sides of the aisle recognize that she votes her conscience rather than agendas," Bosse said.

Maine Democratic Party chairman Phil Bartlett said in a statement that Collins chose to stay in "Washington with a failed President and broken Congress" rather face a far-right gubernatorial candidates in primary. 

"The Republican field of candidates now represents the fringe of the party, fighting one another for the mantle of who can make healthcare more expensive, who can line the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, and who can divide Mainers the most," he said. 

This story was originally published Oct. 13, 2017 at 8:32 a.m.