Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, listens during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for fiscal year 2024 for the Department of State with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Collins had few words to say on Donald Trump's indictment, announced on March 30, 2023. Credit: Alex Brandon / AP

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins replied tersely to former President Donald Trump’s Thursday indictment, highlighting a muted reaction from Maine’s Republican establishment to the long-expected news.

“I don’t know what to make of it,” she said in a statement. “This is an unprecedented situation.”

Collins is Maine’s most prominent and senior Republican leader and has often sought to distance herself from Trump’s many controversies without angering conservatives. Her Friday comments are noteworthy for their brevity but similar to the initial reactions from others in her party.

No former president has ever been indicted as Trump was following a New York City prosecutor’s investigation into hush-money payments made during his 2016 campaign that were aimed at concealing an alleged affair that Trump has denied. He is due in court next week and is expected to plead not guilty to charges that have not yet been made public.

Trump’s historic prosecution has led to a media frenzy muted somewhat by a lack of specificity over the details of his alleged crimes. The former president remains the top candidate for the Republican nomination to take on President Joe Biden in 2024, even though there have been signs that his grassroots standing in Maine and elsewhere has slipped.

Some Republicans partially blamed Trump and his false claims of a stolen 2020 election for a poor showing in Maine last year, including former Gov. Paul LePage, who was one of Trump’s earliest prominent backers during the 2016 election and chaired his last Maine campaign.

LePage lost last year’s election to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, saying Trump’s election claims convinced many Republicans that their votes did not count. For example, he said the party’s members must embrace forms of early voting that the former president has criticized.

“I think Donald Trump was a major factor in this election,” he said in a February interview with a Maine Republican Party official.

Collins is far from LePage on Trump. She wrote a Washington Post Op-Ed in 2016 saying she could not vote for him. While FiveThirtyEight found Collins voted with him less than any other Republican senator, she was linked to him after her 2018 vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh kicked off a massive Democratic campaign against her in 2020.

Shortly after Collins won, she was one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump on an impeachment charge related to the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021. An effort from Republican state party leaders to censure her failed, though three county committees voted to rebuke her.

Support in the grassroots seems to have gotten softer as well. After the 2022 election, several party activists put forward other potential candidates including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. He has been the only Republican anywhere close to Trump in national polls. The only major candidates officially running now are Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

The highest-ranking state Republicans have not wanted to touch Trump of late. After the former president predicted he would be indicted in mid-March, Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle, said he didn’t know enough about the circumstances and was focused on Maine.

After the election in November, Stewart said he expected more candidates to run, while House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, who extolled Trump’s support for the lobster industry during the 2020 campaign, said he was eyeing DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky as potential candidates.

“I don’t pay attention to Donald Trump,” he told reporters after a news conference on the state budget Thursday evening.

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...