LEWISTON, Maine — She’s been endorsed by labor unions, a leading environmental organization, a national gay rights group and Maine’s popular independent U.S. senator, Angus King.
At first blush it would be easy to mistake Susan Collins — seeking her fourth term in the U.S. Senate — as a Democrat. But Collins is most decidedly a Republican.
Collins, this year, shares the top of her party’s ticket in Maine with two candidates that are notably more conservative than she is: incumbent Gov. Paul LePage running for re-election and Bruce Poliquin, a former state treasurer and the GOP candidate for the state’s 2nd District U.S. House seat, being vacated by Democrat Mike Michaud, who is running for governor.
Pundits have dubbed Poliquin and LePage favorites of the tea party movement because of their more conservative viewpoints. But Collins, like former Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, has largely avoided that affiliation, positioning herself as one of the top “moderates” in the U.S. Congress.
On the hot-button social issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, Collins’ positions conflict with LePage and Poliquin’s.
Poliquin has said his “pro-life” stance is a religious belief and not a political one, while LePage has made overtures to pro-life groups.
On gay marriage, Collins announced her support for Maine’s recently passed referendum that legalized same-sex marriage.
While her Democratic rivals will suggest Collins is migrating politically to the right as she gears up for the re-election bid, her steady election results over the years and the recent endorsement from King — who pointed to Collins’ record and called her “a good senator” — will go a long way with the majority of Maine voters, who are not enrolled in either party, most objective political observers suggest.
Republicans say the top of their ticket shows a diversity of ideologies that Democrats can’t duplicate and illustrates the GOP’s “big tent” philosophy.
To that end, a political action committee controlled by Collins recently made the maximum donation allowed under federal law to Poliquin’s campaign.
In a new s release last week, Poliquin touted the $5,000 donation as evidence that he, too, could be a bipartisan lawmaker.
“Sen. Collins knows I will work with anyone — Democrats, independents or Republicans — in doing what is needed to stand up for Maine,” Poliquin said.
The same Collins PAC made a $5,000 donation to Isaac Misiuk, the Republican candidate challenging Maine’s 1st District Democratic incumbent, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.
Collins has appeared at least once with Poliquin and LePage on the same stage this year, during a June 13 “unity rally” following the state’s primary elections.
The rally with all three candidates stands in sharp contrast to comments LePage made in 2010 about Collins when her former chief of staff, Steve Abbott, announced he would join the primary race for governor.
LePage, who won the nomination, said during a meeting with a tea party group prior to the primary in 2010 that he had twice chaired Collins’ re-election campaign in Kennebec County and he would have never suspected she would “throw you under the bus.”
“I’ll tell you, it’s time to beat the elite,” LePage said to cheers and applause.
David Sorensen, spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, said Collins, LePage and Poliquin agree on the most important issues, including job creation, limiting government overreach, reforming the welfare system and fiscal responsibility for government.
“On the things that unite most Republicans, they agree,” Sorensen said.
But critics say Collins is simply navigating a political path that allows her to survive in an increasingly conservative party.
Liberal blogger and author Mike Tipping, a spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, which largely supports Democrats, said Collins has always been adept at gauging the party’s direction.
In a recently released book by Tipping titled, “As Maine Went,” Tipping details LePage’s overtures to Maine’s tea party movement and the far right, including the reference to being “thrown under the bus” by Collins.
Tipping said Collins is savvy enough to know that despite LePage’s earlier anger toward her, their fates are somewhat linked.
“Collins has always been a wind-sock politician, and I think her public endorsement of and fundraising for LePage and Poliquin shows that she has made a strategic decision about how to survive in the new Republican Party,” Tipping said.
He noted that other moderate Republicans, even those who have been publicly critical of LePage’s unrestrained rhetoric, have backed down for the sake of political expediency.
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said sharing the top of the ticket with LePage and Poliquin will create a problem for Republicans.
“Parties are more successful when they unite and there are a lot of moderate voters that will be turned off by that overall line-up,” Grant said. “It becomes tougher for moderates to swallow, the closer [Collins] gets to LePage and Poliquin.”
Grant acknowledged that Collins’ moderate image creates a conundrum for her Democratic rival, Shenna Bellows.
“Maine people are default ticket-splitters,” Grant said.
In other words, they may vote for a Democrat like Michaud for governor or vote for Poliquin’s Democratic rival, state Sen. Emily Cain, while at the same time casting a ballot for Collins.
Grant said Bellows’ campaign will have to clearly define how Collins isn’t a moderate on key issues by pointing out her voting record, including her support for the Iraq War and her votes for the so-called “Bush tax cuts.”
Republican operatives and campaign workers for both LePage and Collins dismiss any notion that one or the other is riding the “coattails” of the other or standing on them.
Collins’ campaign spokesman Lance Dutson said Collins’ popularity has never been based on her party affiliation but more on her actions as a lawmaker in Washington.
Dutson agreed with Grant that Maine voters have no qualms crossing party lines to vote for the best candidate and that’s why Collins enjoys the support of Democrats, Republicans and independent voters.
“Her approval ratings are in the 70s and 80s across the political party spectrum and that kind of speaks to the fact she has governed in a way that the people of Maine respect, which is staying focused on the issues and coming up with common-sense solutions to things and putting the partisan infighting and bickering off to the side,” Dutson said.
He said statewide elections in Maine “have never been carried by rife partisanship.”
Dutson said Collins has always focused on what Maine voters want and not necessarily what the party wants.
He said Democrats in 2014 face the same top-of-the-ticket dynamic as Republicans, in that Bellows is considerably more liberal than Michaud, who has typically been considered a “Blue Dog” — fiscally conservative — Democrat.
Bellows hasn’t garnered endorsements typically picked up by statewide Democratic candidates, including some union endorsements like that of the powerful Maine Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union.
Bellows’ polling numbers reflect that Democratic voters are not coalescing around her the way Republicans are around Collins, Dutson said.
He said there’s no effort on Collins’ part to distance herself or avoid appearances with Poliquin and LePage. Just last week, all three appeared together at the Lisbon Moxie Festival, he said.
“That’s just what she’s always done,” Dutson said. “She’s always been a supporter of the team.”
But, he said, Collins’ campaign is focused on reaching as many Maine voters as it can and that focus has nothing to do with political affiliations.
“When we hit the campaign trail this summer and fall, we are not focusing our efforts based on people’s political parties, but we are making sure she gets the opportunity to speak with as many voters as possible across the state,” Dutson said. “That’s historically what she’s always done.”
Jim Melcher, a University of Maine at Farmington political science professor and author, said Collins epitomizes the Republican’s “big tent” ideal.
“I don’t think Susan Collins finds it that hard to run with LePage and Poliquin,” Melcher said. “She’s always been a big-tent Republican who doesn’t go after ideological purity for her party.”
Melcher said Collins’ strong advocacy for business interests, especially small businesses, has won her much of her unwavering support in Maine, which also endears her to fellow Republicans, even if they don’t always see eye to eye on all things.
Melcher said extreme wings in the GOP see Collins as a so-called “RINO” — Republican in Name Only. The same factions in Maine’s GOP also discounted former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a lifelong Republican and one of the state’s most popular elected officials.
Melcher said Collins has been “careful to stay clear of LePage’s controversies at the state level, as well, so she has not had to either defend criticisms nor praise of him.”
Steve Robinson, a conservative pundit and editor of T he Maine Wire, an online publication of the right-leaning Maine Heritage Policy Center, said liberal observations about Collins, such as Tipping’s, are “hilarious” and transparently hypocritical, given that the Democratic standard-bearer in this election cycle, Michaud, has changed his position on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.
“Mike Michaud has been on both sides of every major issues in the last 20 years,” Robinson said.
Michaud was first elected to Congress in 2002 as a pro-life Democrat, and during his time in the state Legislature, he helped kill legislation that would have leveled the legal playing field for same-sex couples in Maine.
Somewhat ironically, Michaud, the Democrat, and Collins, the Republican, now are fairly well-aligned on both issues.
Robinson noted that Collins, for the first time in recent history, has secured the endorsement of all four unions at the state’s largest employer, Bath Iron Works, which builds ships for the U.S. Navy.
It’s the first time in more than three decades any of the unions at the shipyard have endorsed a Republican in a Maine U.S. Senate race.
“Susan Collins has long been a part of the tradition that started with Margaret Chase Smith, where you have moderate Maine Republicans, strong women, who understand the value of national defense,” Robinson said. “The unions and Bath understand that Collins places a priority on national defense and making sure BIW gets those contracts, because they build the ships better than anybody else.”
Robinson likened the mix of ideologies — even conflicting ones — at the top of the GOP ticket in Maine to an ecosystem.
“Diversity in a political party, as with biodiversity in an ecosystem, is healthy,” Robinson said. “With the Republican Party, the conservative motive has always been ideologically diverse and the best ideas compete and win.”
While Collins and Poliquin may not always agree on exactly how to fix certain problems, like how to fund Social Security going forward, they do agree on what the problems are, Robinson said.
“The one thing that unites them both is they agree that there is a problem that needs to be fixed,” Robinson said.