New revelations about US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — including details about a rushed FBI investigation into the 2018 sexual misconduct allegations against him — could be bad news for Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and her reelection effort.
Collins’s legacy in the age of President Donald Trump was cemented with her vote to put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, after Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by his high school classmate Christine Blasey Ford (an allegation Kavanaugh denied).
Kavanaugh was shaping up to be a big issue for Collins’s reelection even before this weekend’s New York Times report, which suggested the FBI investigation and report on the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh were incomplete when the Senate voted to confirm him. Collins and a number of other moderate senators said the FBI investigation gave them confidence in Kavanaugh before they voted him in.
With Collins up for reelection in 2020, the moderate Maine senator is already in the political fight of her life, and Brett Kavanaugh is a huge factor. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently moved its appraisal of Collins’s race from “lean Republican” to a toss-up, citing a number of polls showing Collins losing ground and the emergence of a strong Democratic challenger.
To be sure, what few polls there are show Collins leading her closest challenger — Democrat and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon — by double digits. Collins has a huge advantage with her name recognition. But a number Republicans are worried about is Collins’ approval rating, which Morning Consult shows is at 45 percent, compared to 48 percent unfavorable.
Collins has been a political institution in Maine for the past 22 years, when she first was elected to the Senate. She’s easily cruised to reelection in the past, but Democrats think moderate women angry about Collins votes could make this year different. Maine is one of Democrats’ top targets in their bid to take back the US Senate, and the race against Collins is already shaping up to be very expensive and hard-fought.
It could down to Maine voters like Pam Cunningham, who believe Collins’s image has become tarnished in the age of President Donald Trump. Cunningham, a co-director for progressive group Mainers for Accountable Leadership, voted for Collins when she was last up for reelection in 2014, but planned to vote against the senator this year.
“The big pivot points for me were first the Gorsuch vote and then the tax vote, and then Kavanaugh,” she told Vox this summer, referring to Collins’s votes for two Trump Supreme Court judges and a tax cut bill. “I don’t think she’s anywhere near as moderate as she’d like us to believe.”
Collins knows she’s lost support because of Kavanaugh, but she’s determined voters won’t just be making their choices based on that.
“Have I lost some votes because of my decision to support Justice Kavanaugh? Yes, I have. And I’m sad about that because I explained in great depth my decision-making,” Collins recently told Politico’s Burgess Everett. But she added, “there still is an appreciation in Maine for someone who looks at the facts of an issue, votes with integrity and independence.”
Democrats are energized to unseat Collins
Of the three states Democrats are eyeing to take back a Senate majority — Colorado, Arizona, and Maine — Collins will be a tough incumbent to beat. She has three Democratic challengers; Gideon, lobbyist and progressive Betsy Sweet, and attorney Bre Kidman.
So far, Gideon appears to be the strongest contender. She’s received backing from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and is posting strong fundraising numbers. If there was any doubt whether Kavanaugh would be a campaign issue, Gideon promoted a fundraising drive on Twitter Monday with a photo of Collins and Kavanaugh.
I’m running against Susan Collins for Senate.
I’m tired of hoping that Susan Collins does the right thing when she has shown time and time again that she puts Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell ahead of Mainers.
If you’re with me, please make a contribution to our campaign today.
— Sara Gideon (@SaraGideon) September 15, 2019
Gideon’s name recognition statewide pales in comparison to Collins, according to a July AARP poll conducted by pollster Fabrizio Ward. That poll showed Collins leading Gideon 52 percent to 35 percent, and just 28 percent had an opinion of Gideon — showing the majority of the 600 likely voters polled didn’t know who she was.
But Collins had troubling numbers of her own. Among voters who heard of both Collins and Gideon, the race essentially turned into a toss-up, with Collins barely leading at 47 percent to 44 percent.
“In Maine we don’t generally defeat incumbent senators,” Maine political science expert Ken Palmer told Vox this summer. Palmer who pointed out the last time an incumbent senator was defeated was in the late ’70s. “They like to keep their senators in, they like the seniority.”
But Democrats seem particularly energized to try to defeat her, if only to deal a blow to Senate Republicans’ majority. Democrats have a lot of ambitious, big ticket bills they’d like to see passed, but they have no hope of doing so if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is at the helm.
The DSCC considers Collins a top target, and local groups like Mainers for Accountable Leadership have been gearing up for the Senate cycle for months with an eye towards winning, the group’s executive director Marie Follayttar told Vox this summer. Maine Democratic Party spokesperson Alex Stack estimated there were nearly 100 volunteer canvassers joining on a July weekend, and he attributes that energy to a desire among left-leaning Mainers to see Collins gone.
“There was a lot of grassroots energy that came out of [the Kavanaugh vote],” Stack told Vox this summer. “People keep wanting to step up for us. That energy has not dissipated, it’s only grown.”