A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
She was not on the ballot, but Election Day was still a significant one for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
After she stood to gain the chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, she instead will now settle for the No. 2 spot because Democrats held control of the upper chamber. Republicans also lost state elections, leaving Collins as the only one in the upper echelon of Maine politics.
In a Friday interview, Collins said former Gov. Paul LePage never asked her to campaign with him after she endorsed him in his losing race to Gov. Janet Mills. Collins added her party should look at how to be “more inclusive” and examine ways to reach out to young voters and to independents. Collins also said a third straight run for former President Donald Trump was not good for her party or the country.
That underscores Collins’ strange place in Republican politics. Instead of helping LePage, she spent the final Sunday of the campaign just outside of Philadelphia campaigning with Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, who lost his race to Democrat John Fetterman.
While she was in the Pennsylvania suburbs, LePage was about to be shellacked by Mills in the Portland suburbs where Collins did relatively well against Democrat Sara Gideon in 2020 despite a bruising campaign that helped send Collins’ approval figures tumbling amid a heavy focus on her 2018 vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Before that campaign, LePage and Collins had a tense relationship. But they repaired relations and the former governor served as a low-key ambassador to conservatives who had been frustrated by the centrist senator at times. She also had helped him before, including by showing up to a Blaine House photo op just before Election Day 2014 during LePage’s reelection bid.
With her committee spot riding on the Senate majority, Collins was focused on national elections. Her political committee spent $720,000 through mid-October, directing $245,000 of that alone to Republicans’ frontline political groups. She gave maximum donations to a wide group of candidates from Oz to outgoing U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a fierce Trump critic who lost her primary.
In Maine, she gave $15,000 to Republican legislative campaign arms, $5,000 to groups run by incoming House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faukingham of Winter Harbor and Rep. Laurel Libby of Auburn, plus contributions to LePage and a small group of legislative candidates. Former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin notably got no donation nor an endorsement in a loss to U.S. Rep. Jared Golden.
Taken together, all of these donations show Collins’ wide group of alliances from the most conservative areas of her party to the never-Trump wing. They have all helped her at different stages of her career and aided Republicans at the state level.
On one hand, she is one of a waning group of centrists who has not dealt with a primary threat. On the other hand, she had to call upon conservatives like LePage and the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine to help her in the 2020 campaign fight against Democrats who wanted to drum her out.
Some of those social conservatives are upset with Collins now. She helped lead a measure advanced by the Senate last week that would shield federal protections for same-sex marriage. It got 12 Republican votes to break the 60-vote filibuster. Last week, the Maine civic league shared a post from an allied national group condemning those senators as “weak-kneed.” The measure is poised to pass in the lame-duck session of Congress.
Collins has a point that her party needs to win over swing voters. Polarization has affected both her role in the Senate and her coalition of support among Mainers. But she has retained her ability to win elections. While Republicans here may have lessons to learn from her, the state party has followed LePage’s lead over hers in the past decade. That does not seem likely to change now.