WASHINGTON ― Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-Maine) vote for hearing from new witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial wasn’t enough to make a difference in the result, particularly given her vote to acquit him on Wednesday.
But there’s one place where it could make a difference: Collins’ political career.
As she faces her toughest reelection battle yet in Maine, Collins has attempted to show independent-minded Maine voters that she remains willing to buck her party when the moment calls for it.
But like many of her votes against the party line, Collins’ support for allowing witnesses couldn’t overcome opposition from nearly every other Republican senator, who voted last week to block witnesses and other evidence from the trial, culminating in Trump’s acquittal on Wednesday.
“I do not believe the House has met its burden of showing that the president’s conduct, however flawed, warrants the extreme step of immediate removal from office,” Collins said on Tuesday, echoing other Republicans who argued that Trump’s conduct, while “wrong,” didn’t merit his conviction.
Collins’ tendency to stick with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Trump and the Republican Party on key votes ― including voting for Trump’s tax bill in 2017 and, in 2018, voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite several sexual misconduct allegations against him ― has sparked backlash.
Since voting against repealing Obamacare in 2017, Collins’ support among Maine voters has suffered, and it dropped even further after her vocal support for Kavanaugh’s nomination. Last month, a Morning Consult tracking poll showed the Maine Republican had surpassed McConnell as the most unpopular senator in the country.
Her vote to call witnesses could save face back home in Maine where 71% of voters said senators should “insist” on introducing new documents and witnesses during the trial, according to a poll conducted by the Garin Hart Yang Research Group and released last month. A recent CNN poll found Maine voters were split on whether Trump should be removed from office, however.
Collins’ maneuvering throughout the impeachment trial was a carefully orchestrated balancing act. Behind the scenes, she pushed her party to give at least the appearance of a fair trial by insisting on longer opening and closing arguments by both the House managers and Trump’s defense team. But even with her vote to allow witnesses, few observers actually expected her to vote to convict Trump and anger his most ardent supporters, especially considering that McConnell had already secured the necessary majority to acquit him anyway.
Ahead of opening arguments, Collins joined Republicans in voting against several Democratic motions to subpoena witnesses and documents during the impeachment trial. In explaining her decision, she said she first needed to hear the case and ask questions.
During the proceedings, Collins made headlines for taking jabs at the Democratic House impeachment managers. She chided Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) for accusing the Senate of engaging in a cover-up by blocking witnesses, sending Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts a note that resulted in an admonishment of both Nadler and White House counsel Pat Cipollone. And when Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) mentioned during his arguments a CBS News report that the White House threatened to punish GOP senators who voted against Trump, Collins shook her head and said, “not true.”
Democrats laughed off Collins’ maneuvering on the floor, accusing her of voting to include witnesses in the trial only after receiving approval from Republican leadership.
“There were many points during this process when Senator Collins could have demanded witnesses and evidence, but instead, she voted twelve times to block them,” Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, one of the Democrats running to challenge Collins, said in a statement last week. “It was only when Senate Republicans knew they had the votes to block witnesses that Mitch McConnell gave Senator Collins a hall pass to break with her party for political cover.”
But Collins forcefully denied the charge, which she called “tremendously sexist.” In an interview earlier this week, she said she felt no pressure from McConnell.
“I had no meetings with Mitch McConnell on how I was going to vote on witnesses. None. Zero. I think it’s tremendously sexist. After all, I don’t hear anyone on the far left saying that [Mitt] Romney got a hall pass,” Collins said, referring to the Utah GOP senator who voted in lockstep with her on the issue of witnesses.
Maine’s Senate race has shaped up to be one of the more-watched contests in 2020 with vast amounts of money pouring in from out of state. Winning Collins’ seat is key for Democrats hoping to flip the Senate in November. A crowdfunding campaign organized around the Kavanaugh vote has raked in millions of dollars for whoever wins the Democratic nomination.
Several Democrats in addition to Gideon are vying for the chance to unseat Collins: former gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet, former Google executive Ross LeJeunesse, attorney Bre Kidman and travel agent Michael Bunker. Two independent candidates ― attorney Tiffany Bond and call center worker Danielle VanHelsing ― and Maine Green Independent Party candidate Lisa Savage are also running.
Collins, a self-proclaimed “pro-choice” moderate, has easily won reelection three times since taking office in 1997 and a Democrat hasn’t held her seat since 1979. But the backlash against her voting record in recent years suggests she could find herself in a close race this time around, and Democrats are confident that Trump’s impeachment trial will resonate enough with voters to boost their chances of retaking the Senate in November.
“I think there’s probably a bunch of Republicans in a position where they’re damned no matter what they do politically,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said this week. “If you vote against the president, then his base is going to come calling. If you vote to defend what he did, then you don’t look terribly independent-minded. I think that’s a problem for a lot of Republicans.”
Still, there’s some reason to be skeptical that the events in recent weeks will create a lasting impression on the public, especially with nine months until the election and likely dozens of turbulent Trump-fueled news cycles until then. One sign is the lackluster attention the impeachment trial drew on Capitol Hill. Compared to the huge protests over Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, Trump’s impeachment trial barely drew a handful of sign-toting protesters outside the Capitol every day.
“I personally don’t think it has been nearly as divisive as Kavanaugh was. One, because everybody knew what was going to happen. With Kavanaugh, one or two folks were undecided. Nobody ever had any reason to think that the president would be removed from office,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said.
Collins said this week that she believes Trump learned “a big lesson” from the impeachment trial and suggested he will be “more cautious” about potentially seeking foreign interference in the future. (She later said it may have been more accurate for her to say she “hopes” Trump learned a lesson.)
On Wednesday, it was another senator who boldly broke with the Republican Party by voting to convict Trump of abuse of power over his dealings with Ukraine.
“Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke, and the censure of my own conscience,” Romney said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“With my vote, I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me,” he added.