Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, returns to the chamber during the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. Her vote to convict Trump led to a rebuke from the Maine Republican Party. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

It took only hours for Republican activists in Maine to criticize Sen. Susan Collins after she voted last weekend to convict former President Donald Trump on an impeachment charge. But the argument facing the Maine Republican Party was years in the making.

The debate among Republicans about Collins’ vote has played out partially in public over the last week, as party activists criticized the five-term senator in social media, talk radio and in emails to each other, sometimes with reporters copied. In a letter to Collins posted on Facebook Tuesday, more than three dozen members of the Republican state committee wrote that “grassroots supporters” were “universally outraged” by the senator’s vote.

The disagreement is not unique to Maine. Of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trial, only Collins and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah have not been censured by their state parties. Maine Republicans have not ruled out censuring Collins, while party leaders in Utah issued a statement saying they supported diversity of thought.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said in a WGAN interview this week that Collins was “an independent thinker” but members of the state committee were “advocating for what they believe is right.”

“I have, in my time here, largely been able to keep that type of disagreement behind closed doors,” Savage said. “In this case, it’s not, but I believe that at least the dialogue is respectful.”

The recent letter hammering Collins, the party’s most successful political figure at a time when it is out of power on the state level, highlights how a party once led by institutionalists more aligned with the senator has grown more strident, particularly in the past decade.

Collins, a moderate known for building a coalition that included independents and some Democrats, sometimes received backlash from her own party earlier in her career too, noted Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. But he pinpointed the shift in the Maine Republican Party to 2010, when former Gov. Paul LePage was first elected and Republicans swept the Legislature after a wave year.

“It doesn’t start with LePage, but it’s almost like, when LePage gets the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, that’s when it increases the pace of not only change, but the fracturing of Maine’s Republican Party,” he said.

Former Gov. Paul LePage is flanked by his wife, Ann, at left, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins at a Blaine House food drive on Nov. 1, 2014. The appearance by the senator came just days before the archconservative LePage won re-election. He would later criticize Collins as she mulled a bid to replace him. Credit: Mario Moretto / BDN

The brash LePage clashed with legislative leaders of both parties during his eight years in office and lobbied supporters to urge Collins not to run to succeed him in 2018. But he came around to back her ahead of her 2020 race. He has not weighed in on the impeachment vote.

Collins refused to say whether she backed Trump during her 2020 campaign after condemning him in 2016, but she nonetheless managed to consolidate Republican support. She voted against convicting him in his first impeachment trial a year ago, a vote she referenced in her response to the state party committee, but she defended her vote to convict him for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, saying her decision was based on evidence and the Constitution.

Republicans critical of Collins’ vote to convict Trump have been mostly mum about her response. Katrina Smith, chair of the Waldo County Republican Party, who told WVOM Wednesday that Collins’ conviction vote put Republicans “over the edge” after many Trump supporters were reluctant to vote for her in a nationally targeted race with Democrat Sara Gideon last fall, said Friday she had not had time to peruse the Republican senator’s response.

Several other committee members who signed the letter to Collins declined to comment on her response or the party’s next steps, with one saying they had been told not to talk with reporters. A Republican who requested anonymity said county chairs had not discussed censure since Collins’ response on Wednesday evening. The party has not issued an official response.

Whether the Republicans calling for the five-term senator’s censure represent the majority of the party or just a vocal subgroup is unclear. Conservative radio stations were jammed with responses to the vote this week, though two Trump-supporting hosts, Ray Richardson and Mike Violette, said on the air that Collins criticism was a distraction from more important business.

Brewer doubted that many Maine candidates would get far by criticizing Collins. Republicans in Maine have had mixed electoral results here recently. While Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win an electoral vote here since 1988, his statewide results were in line with previous party hopefuls as Maine’s two congressional districts have grown further apart.

Former President Donald Trump holds an autographed pumpkin during a visit to the Treworgy Family Orchards, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020, in Levant. The trip came just before Trump repeated his 2016 victory in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District but nonetheless lost to President Joe Biden. Credit: Alex Brandon / AP

Collins outperformed him by nearly 22,000 votes in the 2nd District last year and came within 20,000 votes of winning the liberal 1st District, where the Republican president lost by more than 100,000 votes. LePage was elected governor twice before Democrats swept the Blaine House and the State House in 2018. But the brash former governor banked on Collins’ support in the final weeks of his 2014 campaign. He won with 47 percent of votes to Collins 68 percent.

“To rebuke her is like killing the golden goose,” said Mark Ellis, a Collins ally and former Maine Republican Party chair. “She’s somebody who has not only spent a lot of energy and time growing the party, she is also a source of resources from beyond the state of Maine that I think she brings to bear to help Republicans advance their cause.”

While she does not always agree with leading Republicans, she is a perennial good soldier for the party. Since 2004, her political committee has given more than $230,000 to state-level candidates and local parties, according to campaign finance data, including $70,000 in the 2020 cycle alone — far more than any other Republican politician in the state.

Even while criticizing Collins, members of the state committee thanked her for her past support. In her response, Collins highlighted her work for the Republican candidate in a special Maine Senate election in Kennebec County next month. A flier distributed by the Maine Republican Party for the race uses the senator’s likeness.

Illustrative of the lingering power of split-ticket voting in Maine, the Democrat who previously held that swing legislative seat — Secretary of State Shenna Bellows — won the district by about 2,800 votes last November. Biden won it by 295.

Collins, as she reminded the party, won it by 3,700.