Today, Maine senator Susan Collins won reelection to serve a fifth term following a tight and closely watched race, a definitive loss for those who believe politicians should be responsible for matching the words that come out of their mouths with the things that they do.
Collins’ Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, called Collins to concede on Wednesday afternoon according to a number of outlets, with about three-quarters of the state’s votes counted and Collins coming in, according to the New York Times’ latest numbers, with 49.8 percent of the vote. It was the most expensive campaign in Maine history, with both candidates receiving significant out-of-state support and the AP estimating advertising spending at $100 per voter.
The race, which remained tight through the last hours, was less a partisan battle than a referendum on a politician’s ability to speak out of both sides of their mouth and, having played the people they represent, remain employed. For more than two decades, Collins has presented herself as a bipartisan ethicist, more concerned with the well-being of her rural constituents than Washington’s mechanisms of power. Long described as a “moderate,” Collins ostensibly supports the right for a woman to have an abortion and has, over the course of her 24-year political career, thrown herself behind LGBTQ rights as well as Medicare expansion. But faced with the realities of moral bipartisanship, under a regime that required courageous dissent, she revealed herself as either a cynic or a coward. Perhaps she is both.
Over the last four years, the once-beloved Collins became a national symbol of the disingenuous collaborator bowing to the Trump administration’s myriad pressures. During campaign season in particular, Collins has feigned surprise at those who have taken issue with her record of acquiescence in Washington, appearing somewhat baffled to have been thrust onto the national stage. But it was the senator who first positioned herself as a foil to the president, and who repeatedly foreshadowed, and then did not act, on her convictions. In August of 2016, Collins published an op-ed in the Washington Post about Donald Trump, writing that “rejecting the conventions of political correctness is different from showing complete disregard for common decency.” In her public statements, as in most things, Collins rendered herself as a principled and no-nonsense arbiter. But as the Trump administration wore on, she revealed herself to be just as cynical as the brand of politics she slammed—a small-town figure with a folksy demeanor in her home state who, once she travelled to D.C., transformed into a willing if not particularly convincing adherent to the party line.
The worn-out joke about Susan Collins is that she’s perpetually concerned with developments that would clearly be at odds with her supposedly iron-clad convictions. She said she was troubled by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony accusing Brett Kavanaugh of rape and disappointed by the conduct that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing. But all the indecision and bluster was a political tactic. The hedging was probably intended to placate her more liberal constituents. It ultimately backfired when her reticence to commit became a meme. In a widely publicized, hour-long speech explaining her Kavanaugh vote, the senator was characteristically canny: “the #MeToo movement is real,” she noted, but apparently not real enough to invite consequences or tarnish the judge’s reputation as an “exemplary public servant, judge, teacher, coach, husband, and father.” Her decision not to vote to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, a measure taken in the last stretch of campaign, was ultimately an empty gesture. The Republican party, not needing her vote anyway, hung her out to dry. The supposedly abortion-friendly Republican, the highest ranking woman in the Senate, became directly responsible for appointments many fear will overturn Roe v. Wade.
As recently as January, Collins was the least popular politician in the Senate, according to some polls. She faced, along with her new national profile, a fantastically well-funded if not particularly charismatic Democratic challenger who benefitted from $4 million crowdfunded in the immediate aftermath of Collins’ Kavanaugh vote. Prevented by the pandemic from doing the state fair rounds and individual meet-and-greets that have been the backbone of her previous campaigns, Collins shifted tactics to accuse her detractors of the same cynicism and politicking for which she’d recently become known. This style can be neatly summed up by an anecdote that appeared in a recent New Yorker article: Susan Collins, cutting a red ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors at a bell-christening ceremony during a campaign stop, told reporters it was Chuck Schumer who was attempting to tarnish her reputation because he was “so hungry to be the Majority Leader.” She then chided them for not asking about “this beautiful ceremony” and got back on her bus, ever the politician papering over the consequences of her actions with delicate words and charming displays.
It’s often said that Susan Collins fell victim to the extreme partisanship of the Trump-era, or that her brand of compromise politics has been rendered obsolete by political spectacle and churn. Another way to look at it might be that Collins invited the question of what a politician was actually for. Representing constituents is about expanding local programs and shaking hands; it’s also ostensibly about bringing the values you’ve been elected to champion to the broader national stage. Her reelection affirms that even when the public is given a good hard look at a politician’s true convictions under all her kind words and op-eds, it doesn’t mean they will hate what they see.