Political Pulse Newsletter: Does Susan Collins Stand On The Modern Republican Platform?

Aug 28, 2020

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The pandemic edition of the Republican National Convention is in the books, but before it even began the GOP was confronted with an important question: What does the modern Republican party stand for?

The answer appears straightforward given that the Republican National Committee ditched plans to update its 2016 platform and instead unanimously approved a resolution that the GOP “will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

As Americans have seen over nearly four years of the Donald Trump presidency, the president’s agenda has not only turned traditional Republican orthodoxy on its head (i.e. free trade, interventionist foreign policy, permissive immigration), it can also be quite … malleable.

As Ramesh Ponnuru of the conservative American Enterprise Institute told NPR earlier this week, Trump’s takeover over the GOP is unlike previous ideological shifts in the party shepherded by populists like Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan.

“It’s not like [1964 GOP presidential nominee Barry] Goldwater with Goldwater-ism or [President Ronald] Reagan with Reagan-ism,” Ponnuru said. “There just really isn’t a Trump-ism that transcends his whims of the moment.”

“Onwning the libs,” was the blunter assessment Brendan Buck, a Republican congressional aide, offered to Politico. “That’s what we believe in now. There’s really not much more to it.”

The latter philosophy may work for President Trump and acolytes like Florida GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz, whose list of stunts includes mocking the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic in March by wearing a gas mask during a House vote.

But what about a Republican office holder or aspirant who isn’t quite so thirsty for scoldings by CNN hosts and liberal Twitter?

As luck would have it, Maine has a real-time case study: Republican Sen. Susan Collins.

Collins is seeking her fifth term, and as some analysts and pollsters have noted, she’s in the electoral fight of her life. The reasons are well-documented — votes she’s taken during his presidency and the withering of her long-cultivated centrist, independent brand.

Other Republicans in this situation have pulled the ripcord. Some have joined the legion of never-Trumpers like former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who recently announced his support for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Others have quietly retired, much like Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe did in 2012 amid the ascendance of the tea party.

Collins has decided to ride it out.

The results of this choice are playing out nearly every day of the Maine U.S. Senate race. Trump has endorsed Collins, but she will not say if the endorsement is reciprocal, saying she’s focusing on her own campaign. Meanwhile, Democrats are on the hunt for evidence that Collins is playing both sides of the Trump divide. Last week the campaign of her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, accused Collins’ team of blurring out a Trump sign in a photo of the senator’s campaign stop in Springvale.

The apparent gotcha is another episode in the daily knife fight of one of the most watched and most expensive congressional contests in the country. But the RNC’s pledge this week suggests Collins’ attempts to navigate the Trump era won’t end when the campaign does, especially if Maine voters reward her with a fifth term and American voters deliver a second term to the president.

Buoy Trump?

The president’s courtship of Maine’s most iconic industry — and a single electoral vote in the 2nd Congressional District — received a boost this week when the Trump administration announced that it had struck a deal with the European Union to end tariffs on lobster sold to member countries.

If ratified, the deal is a big one for the Maine lobster industry, which has long been at a disadvantage with its Canadian counterparts. It could also be a big deal for Trump if the move resonates with enough 2nd District voters.

After all, Trump did not need the 2nd District electoral vote he won by 10 points in 2016, but he might this year.

It’s one reason why Swan’s Island lobsterman Jason Joyce was invited to speak at the GOP national convention this week.

Recent polling suggests Biden is in contention in the 2nd District, while holding a large lead statewide. That explains why Biden’s campaign operation in Maine signaled its commitment to making sure right whale regulations, a big concern for the industry, are based on science and fair.

“Maine lobstermen and women take their commitment to ocean stewardship seriously and have a critical voice in what is needed for them to do their job safely and power an essential industry that has supported Maine for generations,” Biden’s Maine deputy state director BJ McCollister said in a statement.

The right whale issue is certainly an important one to the industry. However, it will also be interesting to see if Trump pays an electoral price for initiating a trade war with China that initially resulted in a 25 percent tariff on lobster imports. In 2018, Asian markets made up about one third of Maine exports, but those shipments cratered after Trump’s trade war shifted China’s crustacean demand to Canadian dealers.

The Trump administration says it’s taking steps to mitigate the fallout, but questions remain about the Maine industry’s ability to resurrect the Chinese market.

Mills bolsters absentee voting

With a pandemic-induced explosion in absentee voting already underway, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills this week signed an executive order designed to expand ballot access and give voters more time to register to vote. Here’s a snapshot:

It moves up the time Maine residents can register to vote by mail, from Oct. 13 to Oct. 19. In-person registration up to and on Election Day will continue to be allowed.

Local clerks can begin processing absentee ballots seven days before the election. Under law, it’s four days before the election. Mills expanded the window during the July primary and is doing it again for the general election.

The order grants an extra day for voters to cast absentee ballots. Typically, it’s two business days before the election. Now it’s one business day, meaning in-person absentee ballots can be cast up until Oct. 30.

Limits 50 people inside a single polling place at any given time.

By the numbers

Here are some noteworthy statistics from the week, along with historical counterparts:

  • 69,221 — The number of absentee ballot requests made through the Secretary of State’s online portal through Aug. 27.
  • 20,000 — The number of absentee ballot requests made through the state’s online portal in all of 2016.
  • $1.4 billion — The amount of state and federal unemployment benefits paid by the Maine Department of Labor through this week.
  • $73.9 million — Unemployment benefits paid by the state in all of 2019
  • 4.5 points — Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon’s lead over Sen. Susan Collins, according to an average of polls by Real Clear Politics.
  • 29.2 points — Collins’ polling lead over Democratic challenger Shenna Bellows in 2014, according to an average by Real Clear Politics.
  • 37 points — Collins’ margin of victory over Bellows in 2014.
  • 11.5 points — Joe Biden’s Maine polling lead over President Trump, according to an average by Real Clear Politics.
  • 1 point — Biden’s lead over Trump in the 2nd Congressional District.
  • 4.5 points — Hillary Clinton’s average polling lead over Trump in Maine in 2016.
  • 2.9 points — Clinton’s eventual margin of victory over Trump in Maine in 2016.
  • .5 points — Trump’s polling lead over Clinton in the 2nd Congressional District.
  • 10.4 points — Trump’s eventual margin of victory over Clinton in the 2nd Congressional District.

Click here to subscribe to Maine's Political Pulse Newsletter, sent to your inbox on Friday mornings.

Originally published 9:48 a.m. August 28, 2020.