By ALAN FRAM and DAVID SHARP Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s so on brand for Sen. Susan Collins to be in a pressure cooker over how she’ll vote in a showdown riveting the nation.
This time, it’s unclear how the battle over President Donald Trump’s effort to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court will affect the Maine Republican’s bid for a fifth term. It comes six weeks from an Election Day when Trump might lose and Democrats could win Senate control, and it’s further complicating perhaps her toughest reelection race.
A day after Ginsburg, 87, succumbed to cancer, Collins said Saturday that Ginsburg’s replacement should be nominated “by the President who is elected on November 3rd.” She said the Senate shouldn’t vote until after the election.
That’s important, she told reporters Monday, “if the American people are going to have confidence in the fairness of the system.” She cited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2016 decision to block President Barack Obama’s effort to fill a court vacancy that occurred nine months before Election Day, claiming the next president should make the selection. Ginsburg died 47 days before the coming election.
That’s left Collins, 67, facing a nomination fight that risks alienating independents and cross-over Democrats who’ve backed her or loyal Republicans demanding fealty to Trump.
If that roll call occurs before Election Day, Collins’ vote will be magnified as an issue in her race. Even if it doesn’t, her stance will be high on voters’ minds.
“It ties her into a pretzel,” said Dan Eberhart, a major GOP donor to Trump and some Senate candidates, though not directly to Collins. “She needs the base, but she also needs the center or she will lose.”
Trump plans to announce his selection Saturday.
Over objections by Democrats and two Republicans — Collins and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — McConnell, R-Ky., has said the Senate will vote on the nominee this year. He’s not said when the vote will occur but apparently has enough support to proceed.
Democrats hope the nomination fight will remind liberal voters of Collins’ support for Trump’s controversial last Supreme Court pick, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
It might also focus progressives on how abortion rights and President Barack Obama’s health care law could be threatened by a conservative-dominated Supreme Court. The justices are expected to hear arguments attacking the health care law the week after Election Day.
Sensing an opportunity, Collins’ Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon, began airing a TV ad Tuesday saying “our children and our grandchildren” will be affected by Trump judicial nominees the McConnell-led Senate is rubber-stamping.
“We have to change the people who make him majority leader. That includes Sen. Susan Collins,” Gideon says.
Democrats and Republicans note that Collins’ carefully worded statements so far haven’t explicitly ruled out that if forced to vote, she’d support Trump’s nominee.
“People don’t know what she stands for,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party’s Senate political arm. Along with Collins’ refusal to say if she’ll vote for Trump this year, “that question looms over her campaign and is a political problem for her.”
Republicans say Collins’ stance illustrates an independence that Maine voters have long prized.
“Our state and our country need problem solvers,” said Michael Thibodeau, a Republican and former state Senate president. “People who can compromise and see value in others’ ideas and are not driven solely by the most partisan aspects of politics.”
“Senator Collins always does what she thinks is right for Maine and America, no matter which political party is in power,” said Annie Clark, a Collins campaign spokesperson.
Polling illustrates the perils facing Collins, one of the most vulnerable GOP senators facing reelection this year.
A Maine poll by The New York Times and Siena College, released last week before Ginsburg died, showed Trump substantially trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. It also showed a majority wanting Biden to select the next justice, spotlighting Collins’ risks if she’s seen as deferring to Trump’s wishes.
The poll also showed Collins slightly trailing or even with her Democratic rival, Sara Gideon, underscoring that Collins can ill afford to lose support over the court fight.
“She’ll get dinged on by the right, and dinged on by the left,” said Democratic consultant John Lapp.
In a further problem for Collins, Maine’s political ground is shifting. State records show nearly 387,000 Democrats in July and 340,000 “unenrolled” independents, giving Democrats the largest voting block for the first time since at least the 1980s, according to Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. Republicans trail both groups.
Collins is one Congress’ few remaining GOP moderates. She’s backed abortion rights and won praise from Democrats when she helped kill Trump’s 2017 drive to erase Obama’s health care law.
But Democrats have complained that despite her penchant for publicly agonizing over difficult issues, she too often follows the GOP line when her vote is needed.
In a deal-breaker for Democrats and many #MeToo movement supporters, Collins cast a pivotal vote for Kavanaugh to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 2018, despite accusations that he’d committed sexual assault while in high school. Kavanaugh denied the allegations.
Collins has said she believes Kavanaugh won’t overturn the court’s Roe v. Wade decision finding abortion legal. Abortion rights advocates say they think he will.
Collins has long had a fraught relationship with Trump. She didn’t support him during the 2016 election because of his “constant stream of denigrating comments.”
Asked Monday on TV’s “Fox and Friends” about Collins’ distancing over the court vacancy, Trump said: “I think that Susan Collins is going to be hurt very badly. People aren’t going to take this.”
In a sign of conservatives’ ambivalence, the Club for Growth hasn’t endorsed Collins but is collecting contributions for her that may total $200,000, said the conservative group’s president, David McIntosh. He said Collins’ remarks indicate “she’s open” to backing a Trump pick and added, “It’s an important race for keeping the majority.”
Both sides have so far spent $97 million on the Collins-Gideon race, with Democrats have a modest edge, according to data from the ad tracking company Kantar/CMAG.
Republicans control the Senate 53-47.
Sharp reported from Portland, Maine.