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.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins got national attention in 2016 when she ruled out voting for Donald Trump along his path to the presidency.
Much has happened since then, and that is an understatement. It culminated in Trump’s second federal indictment this week on charges relating to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, leading to a rhetorical shift from Collins that was reminiscent of another era.
The context: The subdued reaction from Maine’s congressional delegation was altogether similar to when the former Republican president and frontrunner for the 2024 nomination was indicted on classified documents charges in June.
“Obviously, President Trump is entitled to his day in court,” she told reporters in Maine. “The piling up of indictments increases his legal jeopardy, but we haven’t heard his defense in court.”
This low-key quote belies a subtle shift in Collins’ official line on Trump on Wednesday. Her office told the Portland Press Herald that she will not support the former president in the nominating race and will not vote for him if he is the nominee.
This is effectively a return to the senator’s 2016 line on Trump and a break from how she has been discussing him since the pivotal 2020 election. During that latter cycle, Collins and Trump were on the ballot together, and she avoided saying whether she would vote for him during that election with President Joe Biden.
Times have changed: Context is key here. She was deriving more of her political support than ever from hard-line conservatives as her crossover appeal eroded in her race with Democrat Sara Gideon. She still kept enough of it to win in convincing fashion, then voted to convict Trump on a Democratic impeachment charge related to the Capitol riots of Jan. 6, 2021.
Under questioning from reporters since late last year, she has frequently listed off Republicans who would be better picks than Trump, singling out former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Right now, all of Collins’ preferred candidates are mired in the single digits with Trump dominating the field. Until this week, Collins has not been saying explicitly that she would not vote for Trump in the general election, though she has repeatedly said it about the primary.
“As you know, [Sen.] Collins has already stated that she doesn’t support Donald Trump,” Collins spokesperson Annie Clark said on Thursday.
What’s next: The shift in Collins’ official statements may not be a shift in substance. She is still going further here than almost any other national Republican on the Trump 2024 question. For now, it looks like rank-and-file party members are on the opposite side. It’s hard to project whether that question will be open when or if Trump is on trial.