Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) didn’t cast a single vote against one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees in 2017 and 2018. But she suddenly got cold feet on some of his picks this year as she kicked off what’s shaping up to be one of her toughest reelection cycles yet.
Collins, the most senior Republican woman in the Senate, cast the deciding votes confirming several of Trump’s controversial nominees in recent years, including those deemed unqualified by the American Bar Association (ABA).
And though she says she’s “pro-choice,” the four-term incumbent has voted to confirm dozens of judges who have signaled they oppose abortion.
But Collins’ steadfast approval for the president’s court picks weakened in 2019 after Republicans picked up two more seats in the Senate during the previous year’s midterm elections.
She was able to oppose some of the nominees ― grabbing headlines and the goodwill of some of Maine’s Democratic-leaning voters along the way ― likely knowing full well that they would receive the confirmation votes needed from her Republican colleagues anyway.
Hundreds of Trump’s lifetime appointees for the Supreme Court, circuit courts and district courts have been confirmed since he took office in 2017. As a so-called moderate, Collins has been viewed as a critical vote for several of these confirmations.
She helped seal Jonathan Kobes’ fate on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2018, though the ABA determined he was “not qualified” for the position. He drew opposition from more than 200 civil and human rights groups over his past anti-LGBTQ comments. He also raised concerns his decision to represent, on a pro bono basis, anti-abortion health centers.
Collins was also a crucial vote for the confirmations of Leonard Steven Grasz, another nominee deemed “not qualified” by the ABA, to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and Don Willett, who has made disparaging jokes on Twitter about same-sex marriage and transgender people, to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2017.
But in January, Collins’ vote no longer played a critical role confirming Trump’s court picks. The GOP nabbed two more seats in the Senate a few months earlier during the 2018 midterm elections, giving the GOP a 53-47 majority.
That meant Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) could afford to lose a few Republicans’ votes as he continued to push through Trump’s judicial nominees and conservative agenda.
Collins continues to vote for many of Trump’s nominees, but in March, she cast her first vote opposing one of them. She voted against Chad Readler for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, citing his role in the Justice Department’s failure to defend key Affordable Care Act provisions against a Republican-backed lawsuit.
In her statement of dissent, she bashed Readler for failing to defend certain provisions that protect individuals with pre-existing conditions. But the senator voted in December 2017 to pass the Republican tax plan, which repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, leaving 13 million more Americans uninsured and increasing premiums by 10%.
Readler was ultimately confirmed by a vote of 52-47. Collins was the only Republican to vote no.
Since then, Collins has opposed at least seven other judicial nominees, often citing their personal biases or inexperience ― factors that didn’t seem to deter her when she voted to confirm Trump’s unqualified, anti-abortion judges in the two years before.
Earlier this month, Collins voted against Sarah Pitlyk’s nomination to be a judge for the Eastern District of Missouri, saying Pitlyk lacked “sufficient experience” to take on the job and questioned whether she could “put aside” her anti-abortion views.
The Senate ultimately confirmed Pitlyk by a 49-44 vote. Collins was the only Republican to vote no once again.
Asked for comment on her seemingly shifting stance on Trump’s court picks, Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins reelection campaign said: “Senator Collins supported 95 percent of judges appointed by President Obama and she has supported 95 percent of the judges appointed by President Trump. That is a fairly consistent record of bipartisanship.”
Maine’s Senate race promises to be one of the most closely watched contests in 2020. Collins, who formally announced her reelection bid earlier this month, has long purported to be a moderate, but she often votes along party lines.
She drew outrage among her constituents when she cast a critical vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, despite his anti-abortion views and the sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Her votes to pass Trump’s tax bill in 2017 and to confirm dozens of Trump’s conservative federal judicial nominees have also mobilized efforts to unseat her.
Winning her seat is key for Democrats hoping to flip the Senate in 2020.
The race has drawn several Democratic challengers ― Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, former Maine gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet, attorney Bre Kidman and former Google executive Ross LaJeunesse ― as well as independents Tiffany Bond and Danielle VanHelsing and Maine Green Independent Party candidate Lisa Savage.