Maine’s two House members and two Senators are staking out different positions on the impeachment question.
Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King supports the inquiry, but has abstained from commenting on allegations and developments that are emerging at a breakneck pace. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, like Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, has been far more cautious, and that may be because of the political jeopardy both face next year.
Collins’ and Golden’s plight is not without precedent.
Golden is one of about 10 House Democrats who had not expressly announced support for the impeachment inquiry. He’s taking heat from some of the progressive activists who supported his narrow victory over Republican Bruce Poliquin last year.
But Golden says the stakes are high.
“We’re talking about removing a president of the United States from office. There’s no more important decision for a member of Congress other than decisions about war and peace,” he says.
Golden’s comments to Maine Public Radio and other media outlets Tuesday highlight the unique predicament he faces. He represents a district that President Donald Trump won in 2016, yet he’s among a group of Democratic freshmen boosted by a wave of anti-Trump anger in last year’s midterm elections.
“He has to be very careful about where he comes out on impeachment,” says Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine.
Brewer says Golden’s current position will not satisfy either of his constituencies, both of which are demanding declarations of guilt or innocence — and right now. He says the pressure will only increase if the impeachment inquiry comes to a vote in the House of Representatives.
“Almost certainly he’s going to anger a fair amount of his constituents either way,” Brewer says.
The same is true for Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who is under pressure from the left, the right and even conservative anti-Trump groups like Republicans for the Rule of Law.
“Sen. Collins, the country is in crisis. The president of the United States has requested foreign interference in American elections to benefit himself politically,” says a narrator in a Republicans for the Rule of Law ad running in Maine.
Maine voters have long rewarded Collins and her reputation as a moderate, handing her landslide victories in each of her three re-election bids. But the Trump presidency — and the votes she’s taken during it — could threaten her brand and her 2020 re-election chances.
Brewer says impeachment puts Collins in even greater political jeopardy.
“She certainly can’t do what some Republican senators are doing and saying, ‘There’s nothing to see here,’ or use [Sen.] Lindsey Graham’s terminology that this is a ‘big nothingburger,’” he says. “She can’t do that. She also can’t enthusiastically line up in favor of impeachment.”
Collins and Golden reject claims there’s an electoral calculation to their current positions, but they are not the only Maine politicians who have found themselves walking a tightrope because of an impeachment effort.
“I was preparing to lose my seat,” Former U.S. Rep. and Sen. William Cohen of Maine told C-Span in a Watergate retrospective aired in 2014.
Cohen was a 33-year-old freshman representative when he served on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment trial of President Richard Nixon in 1974. As a Republican serving just two years after Nixon’s 49-state re-election victory, Cohen was under enormous pressure to oppose impeachment, telling C-Span that he received thousands of letters and messages, as well as threats to his family.
But Cohen, an attorney, says he was more committed to unearthing the facts of the Nixon Watergate scandal than to keeping his seat.
“I said, ‘Well so be it.’ That’s not why I came, to simply get re-elected,” he said. “So whatever the facts are I’ll go with the facts and if I’m convinced … there’s sufficient evidence to propose to the House of Representatives that the president be impeached then that’s what I’ll do.”
And on July 24, 1974, that’s what Cohen did, as the Judiciary Committee clerk called the roll to recommend impeachment to the U.S. House of Representatives.
While the Nixon impeachment was wildly unpopular at first, public opinion changed rapidly, prompting Nixon to resign before he could be removed from office.
And shortly after Nixon left, Cohen hired a staffer, a political upstart who would find herself in her own political quandary more than 40 years later — her name was Susan Collins.