Here's how vulnerable Susan Collins really is

Here's how vulnerable Susan Collins really is
Susan Collins official photo: https://www.collins.senate.gov

The 2020 elections will feature the Democrats attempting to wrestle control of the US Senate back from the Republicans. In order to do so, there are a few states that seem like essential races for Democrats to win to have a shot, those being Colorado, Maine, and Arizona. Win those three, and then you can pick one more from a set of North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Iowa (maybe Montana?) to get the majority. Of the first three, Colorado seems to be by far the easiest, where Republicans are in a lot of trouble. Arizona, being an open seat in a swing state where Democrats just claimed a Senate seat in 2018, will likely go as the Presidency goes (i.e., if Dem nominee for President carries AZ, the Dem nominee for Senate likely wins the seat). But Maine is a bit of a wildcard, because of the presence of long time Senator Susan Collins. Collins, now in the twilight of her 4th term in office, has long been one of America’s most teflon Senators, sporting high approval ratings and never having been seriously challenged for her seat in years. That’s going to change in 2020, as Democrats are going to go all out to win the race. Which leads us to the point of today’s piece, just how vulnerable is Susan Collins? Let’s dive in:


Background 

Collins worked a bunch of administrative jobs under northeast Republicans in her early career back in the 1980s before running for Governor in 1994, which she lost in a very typically-Maine race where four candidates (Dem, GOP, Indy, Green) all got at least 6% of the vote, with future Senator Angus King (I) being the eventual winner. Collins wasted no time and ran for Senate in 1996, defeating Joe Brennan, who was also involved in that convoluted Governor race, by a 5 point margin. In 2002, she won re-election over State Senator (and future US Rep.) Chellie Pingree by a comfortable 17 point margin and she began to build her image as an ultra popular moderate centrist. This led to her accumulating astonishingly high approval ratings, which lasted through much of the 2000s and early 2010s, and Democrats mostly gave up challenging her. She won by 23 points against a credible opponent in 2008, despite the national Dem wave, and then she won by 37 points in 2014 against a largely unknown opponent. At that point in her career, she had carved out a perfect image for herself. Then came the Trump years.

The Recent Past 

If you’ve followed politics over the last two years, you likely know Collins’s name, as no one has had a larger congressional impact than her, outside of McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Nancy Pelosi. When you’re a popular moderate who wants to preserve that image, you largely want to stay out of the limelight and in particular, you don’t want to have to cast hugely publicized and decisive votes on controversial issues. Unfortunately for Collins, as a swing Senator in the 115th US Congress, she was not afforded that ability. First came health care, where she angered conservatives by refusing to green light the “Trumpcare” bill that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act, even though she had long been on the record against ACA. This made her a temporary hero of the left, being mobbed by happy supporters upon her return to Maine after the vote. But then came the polling, which showed her more popular with Democrats than with Republicans and very vulnerable to a primary challenge, after angering the conservative base.

And so she spent the rest of the Congress veering sharply to the right. She voted for the tax bill in the fall of 2017 and accumulated the most pro-Republican and most conservative voting record of her recent career. But many of those votes were away from major scrutiny and it seemed like she would get off okay. Then Brett Kavanaugh happened, which put Collins in a pickle: she wanted to continue to shore up conservative support and vote yes, but her entire career was built on an image of being pro-women and pro-choice. With Lisa Murkowski as a no and Joe Manchin essentially following whatever Collins decided, the Senator literally had the sole responsibility of deciding the next Supreme Court Justice of the United States and she ended up confirming Kavanaugh. But not just that, she prefaced it with a publicized, grandstanding speech on the Senate floor that made the front page of all of the papers and subjected her to liberal fury. Within hours, a fund was created for the future 2020 opponent of Collins, which raised millions in just over a week, putting the Senator at the top of the upcoming Senate battleground.

Her Approval Rating 

So given all of that, how vulnerable is Susan Collins? Let’s first look at her approval ratings. While not tremendously instructive, they give us a rough idea of the popularity of Senators. It’s rather evident that Collins is not nearly as popular as she once was, largely because she is no longer seen as the consensus moderate she once was. In 2013, a PublicPolicyPolling poll found her approval rating at 61% approve and just 27% disapprove (+34) and in 2014, University of New Hampshire found her at an astonishing 70% favorable, 19% unfavorable (+51). That Collins existed as early 2017 but has quickly vanished. She entered the 115th Congress with a 67% approve, 27% disapprove (+40) mark but she left it far from unscathed, at 53% approve, 38% disapprove (+15) a drop 25% drop in popularity, according to the Morning Consult tracking poll. In the updated numbers, she’s sunk even further, sitting at 52% approve, 39% disapprove (+13) according to the latest figures in April. This graph shows her approval rating since early 2017:

As you can see, she went from a consensus figure to being seen in much more partisan light, albeit still decently popular. While she starts in a solid place, it’s worth noting that this is before she’s even hit the campaign trail or faced a legitimate opponent who will throw all the opposition possible. Even for the most popular of Senators, election years universally drag down numbers. Let's take a look at some examples of small state broadly popular moderates from 2018:

Joe Manchin

- April 2017 = 57% approve, 33% disapprove

- January 2019 = 43% approve, 44% disapprove (25 point decline)

Heidi Heitkamp

- April 2017 = 60% approve, 32% disapprove

- January 2019 = 42% approve, 45% disapprove (31 point decline)

Joe Donnelly

- April 2017 = 46% approve, 26% disapprove

- January 2019 = 39% approve, 39% disapprove (20 point decline)

Jon Tester

- April 2017 = 57% approve, 32% disapprove

- January 2019 = 51% approve, 41% disapprove (15 point decline)

All of these Senators started in very good positions (better ones than Collins starts in) and ended relatively close to even water, with double digit declines. If Collins sees her numbers decline by double digits, she will be in very big trouble for re-election. The point is, when you carve out a popular moderate image, and then you get embroiled in a bitter and fiercely partisan re-election battle, people are forced to pick sides and the crossover support you once had begins to dissipate. One saving grace for Collins is that she’s in not nearly as blue of a state as those four were in red, but that doesn’t mean she should be feeling terribly secure. Speaking of which….

Maine’s Partisanship 

Maine had an interesting swing between 2012 and 2016, going from an Obama +15 state to Clinton by just 3. An important factor in that, however, was a huge drop in the Democratic vote share. While Trump gained a little under 4% of the vote compared to Romney (44% to 40%), Hillary’s share declined by 8.5% compared to Obama. If the 2 party vote share had remained 97.5% like in 2012, it would have been a much more comfortable 53-45 race, as opposed to the narrow 47-44 race that it was, suggesting a particular distaste for Clinton in Maine. 2018 was an intriguing and instructive year for the state, with a Gubernatorial election and the regularly scheduled US House races. In the Governor's race, Democrat Janet Mills won by a comfortable 7.8 points over the Republican Shawn Moody, who got less than Trump (43.18%), while left-leaning independent Terry Mills (who seemingly drew support from Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin) got 5.91% of the vote. If this had been a two-horse race, I would guess that it would’ve been about 55-45 D, or a 10 point win.

In the US House races, Democrat Chellie Pingree easily won re-election to the 1st district by a 59-33 margin, with an indy getting 8% of the vote. In the 2nd district, Republican Bruce Poliquin was ousted from his rural seat by Democrat and former Susan Collins staffer Jared Golden, using Maine’s new instant runoff voting system, by a 50.6%-49.4% margin. That meant that overall, Democrats won the statewide house popular vote 55.1%-40.1%. If it is assumed that the national vote was D+7 (adjusting for seats the GOP left unopposed), that puts Maine 8 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole, which using the Cook PVI system, would give it a partisanship of D+4. That is probably a bit inflated, given Pingree had the benefit of incumbency, but it’s fair to deem Maine as a decently left-leaning swing state, somewhere between where it was in 2012 (D+6) and 2016 (D+1).

Looking at Trump’s approval rating in the state, it’s… not good. The Fox News Voter Analysis Survey, which was (in my opinion) the best exit poll last fall, pegged his approval rating at 41% approve, 59% disapprove. Gallup, which measures all adults, gave an aggregate score for 2018 that was particularly grisly, 37% approve, 61% disapprove. Morning Consult is a bit more favorable to him, but still shows a quite bad 41% approve and 56% disapprove. Point is, this state is not favorable to the President and as it stands currently, he is not likely to win Maine in 2020. This means that, in order to win re-election, Susan Collins has to win people, and perhaps quite a few, who disapprove of the President.

Challengers? 

It is unclear which Democrat is going to challenge Collins, but there is a long list of possibilities. The first and most likely name is Maine Speaker of the House, Sara Gideon. Chellie Pingree could give it another go against Collins, but I don't think she wants to. Her daughter Hannah, a former Speaker of the House, could also give it a run and is perhaps probable to. Susan Rice, former UN Ambassador under Obama, was discussed but declined. Maybe the strongest candidate would be Jared Golden, the freshmen Rep. who defeated Poliquin, though he has publicly denied interest. That said, while he would put his swingy House seat in jeopardy, that is the luxury of Democrats having a comfortable US House majority. Golden is a young military veteran who worked for Collins in his past and represents the Trumpiest parts of the state (the rural north). He could make the strongest argument against Collins and appeal to both the left and the center and mine votes out of the places she needs them. Again, I don't think he's likely to run, but would be a good get if he does. Regardless, even if it's Gideon, I think Democrats will have a fine candidate. The last note is that this is going to be and expensive race. With Democrats starting out with a big pot of money and Collins being funded by conservatives happy about her Kavanaugh vote, the small market state of Maine is going to be flooded with advertisements. It is probably best if Democrats hit the airwaves early and attack Collins as a phony moderate and a partisan, helping to define her before the rate heats up.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I think Collins is actually quite vulnerable. Maybe I’m just cynical now about the era of partisan politics that we live in, but after watching the way campaigns played out in 2018, it's hard to see how this won't be a bitter fight. Assuming that the President is struggling in Maine in 2020, I think it is likely that Collins's popularity takes another substantial hit as she goes out on the campaign trail. That said, I think she starts as a favorite, but perhaps not as much of one as the conventional wisdom suggests. She will not be easy for Democrats to beat and her legacy will allow her to outperform her state’s partisanship by a fair bit. But the question is how much?

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