The kerfuffle between the Maine Republican Party and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins over her vote to convict former President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection largely resembled the backlash experienced by the six other Republicans who joined her.
But the dispute in Maine was unique and complicated — just like the relationship between Collins and the party with which she identifies.
There’s no doubt that Trump activists in the party are livid with Collins. Katrina Smith, chairwoman of the Waldo County Republican Committee, told radio station WVOM that Trump supporters viewed Collins’ vote as a “betrayal” and “a slap in the face,” in part because many of them “barely” supported Collins’ reelection last year.
Smith, whose committee has already censured two other Republicans for opposing Trump’s reelection, also said that the people angry at Collins far outnumber those who are defending her.
The anger prompted party leaders to consider censuring Collins before the end of the month. But it’s unclear whether that vote will actually happen. An exchange of letters between the party and Collins illustrates why it might not.
Earlier this week, party leaders wrote to Collins to condemn her vote in “the strongest possible terms.” But the letter also thanked the senator for reaching out to the county committee leaders beforehand and, more generally, for “all the work you do that improves the lives of hardworking Mainers from all political parties.”
The entire GOP letter follows the same pattern — righteous anger at Collins followed by effusive praise.
At a glance, the letter might appear as a clumsy good-cop, bad-cop attempt to solicit contrition. But it more likely reflects the ambivalence among Maine GOP party leaders about sanctioning one of their most successful politicians in recent memory, not to mention one who consistently helps other GOP members get elected.
In decisively winning her fifth term, Collins endured a sustained, highly coordinated and historically expensive Democratic campaign against her. She outperformed Trump statewide and in both congressional districts. She also distanced herself from the former president to the point that she would not say whether she voted for him last year.
Collins made sure to note the historic nature of her win in responding to the Maine GOP condemnation letter.
“Not a single public poll in 2020 showed me ahead and not a single national pundit predicted my victory,” she wrote. “That win made me the only Senate candidate in 69 races to win by splitting the ticket with the state’s presidential results — something I have done three times, the only sitting senator to do so.
“Unfortunately, the other races in Maine did not go as well,” she added. “Democrats won in the presidential race and the two congressional races, and they maintained control of the state Senate and State House. Moreover, the Democrats continue to increase their substantial enrollment advantage over Republicans.”
Oof. Collins’ response wasn’t just a defense of her conviction vote. It was also a tacit indictment of an ethos that values fealty to Trump over electoral results.
“I think we need to get away from the idea that the Republican Party is just one person and adherence to just one leader,” she told WMTW. “Instead it’s principles, it’s fundamentals that bring us together.”
It’s not just Collins’ 2020 victory that could inoculate her from the backlash. Over the years Collins has constructed a political machine that’s given her some independence from the party. At the same time, she’s backed Republican legislative candidates with money and, more importantly, by loaning her moderate reputation in ways that can sand the rough edges of far-right hardliners in the eyes of Maine’s famously abundant independent voters.
This support has occasionally come back to haunt her, as it did in 2018 when she vowed to no longer back former state Rep. Larry Lockman after he assailed Democrats’ “war on whites.” Last year, Collins’ Dirigo PAC donated to a pair of legislative candidates who were later revealed to be adherents of the baseless QAnon conspiracy. (Her campaign said it was “not aware” of the candidates’ QAnon beliefs and that it would “reconsider its vetting process in the future.”)
Collins has backed other controversial Republicans, including former Gov. Paul LePage, who touted her support in the final week before his 2014 reelection win.
Of course,the relationship between Collins and LePage is … complicated.
LePage repeatedly and publicly sparred with Collins’ allies in the Maine Senate, including two former Republican Senate presidents, Mike Thibodeau and Kevin Raye, for what he viewed as insufficient loyalty to his policy agenda. In 2013, LePage failed to enlist Collins herself to lobby wobbly Republican state lawmakers during the governor’s nasty fight with legislative Democrats over Medicaid expansion.
In 2016, LePage declared that Maine Republicans were finished with Collins because she refused to vote for Trump. He later attempted to sabotage her never-launched gubernatorial bid by rallying his supporters to oppose her.
Nevertheless, LePage, who still maintains a grip on the party, urged Republican voters to support Collins’ reelection last year. It’s likely LePage could benefit if Collins returns the favor in 2022 if he fulfills his oft-made vow to make another run for governor.
So far, LePage has not made any public statements about Collins’ dispute with the party or her conviction vote. Collins, for her part, did not mention LePage in her response letter to the Maine GOP.
But she did mention future elections in 2022, 2024 and next month in a special election to fill a vacant state Senate seat in Kennebec County.
“That is a very winnable district,” she wrote. “In fact, I carried that district by more than 3,700 votes, even though President Trump lost there. I have contributed to the Senate PAC and have done promotional materials for the party for that race. I would encourage you to consider ways that you can help as well.”
State of the what
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills will deliver her annual address to the Legislature next Tuesday at 7 p.m. Unlike last year — and most years — the governor will not address the Legislature in person but in a video presented to lawmakers that same night because of the pandemic.
Mills is calling her speech a budget address, an oral component to the two-year spending plan she unveiled in early January.
Generally speaking, governors give State of the State addresses during years that do not coincide with their two-year budget proposals. In years that governors propose budgets, some have referred to their speeches as budget addresses.
But governors have been very inconsistent, according to a spreadsheet provided by the Legislature’s Law Library.
Between 1820 and 1917, governors simply called their annual speech a “message” or “speech.” The term “budget address” didn’t become fashionable until Gov. Carl Milliken used it in 1919.
“State of the State” wasn’t referenced until 1974, when Gov. Kenneth Curtis used it, and it wasn’t used consistently until Gov. John McKernan served for two terms between 1987 and 1995.
McKernan mostly alternated between “State of the State” and “budget address,” as did former independent Gov. Angus King — until, that is, King just ditched the “budget” address during his final three years in office.
Gov. John Baldacci called his annual speeches State of the State for all but one of his eight years in office. Gov. Paul LePage did the same.
Mills, for her part, is going with State of the State in nonbudget years and “budget address” in budget years.
That is, unless she changes her mind.
Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings.