If U.S. Sen. Susan Collins wants to be Maine’s next governor, some say she may decide to drop her lifelong Republican affiliation.
Gov. Paul LePage said Collins ought to run as an independent if she wants the office he is leaving next year after two terms because she’s “highly unlikely to win a Republican primary.”
“I do firmly believe deep down in my heart that Susan Collins, in order to become governor of the state of Maine, will have to run as an independent,” LePage said Thursday on WGAN, a Portland radio station.
The possibility that Collins might run as an independent isn’t as strange as it may sound. Two other New England Republicans have switched in order to win the governor’s office in the past quarter century, unsure they could win over GOP loyalists in a primary but rightly convinced they could come out on top in a general election.
Some in Maine are counting on Collins to follow suit, if that’s what it takes.
“She’s kind of my last hope,” said Mary Small of Bath, a Republican who served in the state Legislature for more than two decades. “She could restore some dignity back to the office.”
For Collins, who said she will announce her plans by the end of September, there are two big reasons she might avoid jumping into next year’s gubernatorial race.
The first is that it’s hard to leave the U.S. Senate after racking up enough seniority after two decades to provide her with growing clout in congressional committees where longevity is the most crucial ingredient of power. Collins has said as much.
The other reason is one she doesn’t mention: that her own party might not want her.
A recent poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that Collins has the approval of only a third of likely Republican voters. But it was taken at a moment when passions were running especially high after Collins voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act, perhaps not especially indicative of what GOP voters normally think.
Collins, who declined comment, doesn’t have to give up her Senate seat to make a bid to become Maine’s first woman governor, though she would have to step down if she wins the state office.
Small said she’s worried the senator she respects would find herself getting kicked in the teeth if she winds up in a primary that draws many fanatics who don’t recognize Collins’ value.
“Who wants to fight that hard in a Republican primary after all she’s done for the party?” Small asked.
The Republican said LePage’s analysis of what Collins ought to do is “one of the more rational thoughts he’s ever had.”
If Collins, 64, runs as an independent, she could avoid what might be a divisive and possibly costly party primary. It’s an option she’s never ruled out and one that’s available to few of her counterparts around the country.
Maine has proven to be the friendliest locale in the nation for independent campaigns. Of its last six governors, two have been independents, two Democrats and two Republicans, including LePage.
As an independent, Collins wouldn’t have to worry as much about catering to the right wing of her party, a group that is increasingly unhappy with her for her failure to support President Donald Trump consistently. She could aim instead, as she has always done, for the moderate middle.
Other independents in New England
In many ways, Collins is in the same place that Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker found himself in the late 1980s.
Weicker, a liberal-leaning Republican with a long track record in the Senate, lost a re-election bid in 1988 to Democrat Joe Lieberman. But Weicker wasn’t ready to give up on politics.
In an oral history at the University of Virginia, Weicker said he decided to run for governor in 1990 out of “a combination of wanting to end up on a high note” in his career “and also vindicate myself on the defeat in the previous election.”
But as he reflected on his choices, Weicker realized he couldn’t rely on the GOP.
“Everybody knew it wasn’t the Democrats who had defeated me in ’88. It was the Republicans that had done that,” he said.
Weicker said he told himself, “I don’t want to get back into a foxhole with these guys that just went ahead and ended my career. And that’s exactly what I’m asking to do. We might not even get the nomination at the convention.”
So instead of wasting “my time and money” on what would likely be a bitter internal battle he might not win, Weicker said, “Let’s just go straight to the mark here and run as an independent.”
He said running against both a Republican and Democrat in the general election made it “a tough campaign” but not as difficult as simply deciding how to run. “That was the critical political decision, which I think was the right decision to win that race,” Weicker said.
In Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee followed much the same route.
Chafee, a liberal Republican, lost his Senate seat in 2006. The following year, he announced his departure from the GOP, insisting it had drifted from its core values, including fiscal conservatism.
As an independent, Chafee entered and won the 2010 gubernatorial race in Rhode Island, staying until 2015. He later became a Democrat and briefly challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president.
New England generally is far kinder to independents than anywhere else in America. Outside the six Northeast states, only three independents have won major statewide elections in recent decades: Charlie Crist in Florida, Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Bill Walker in Alaska each won gubernatorial races. Walker is still in office.
Lewiston’s Longley: Started a trend
New England, though, elected the first independent in four decades when Mainers picked Lewiston’s James Longley for governor in 1974.
Voters later backed independent Angus King for two terms as governor in the 1990s and then tapped him for the Senate in 2012, still running without the backing of either major party.
Vermont, too, has been gentle on independents, electing Bernie Sanders first to Congress and then to one of its two Senate seats. For a time, he served alongside Jim Jeffords, a Republican senator who chose in 2001 to become an independent aligned with Democrats after his election, handing his new allies control of the Senate in the process.
New Hampshire briefly had an independent senator when Bob Smith dropped his Republican affiliation in 1999, eyeing a possible third party bid for the White House. But he rejoined the GOP the following year.
One other New England notable also won as an independent in recent times.
Lieberman, who had knocked out Weicker and served as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in a losing effort in 2000, lost a Democratic primary to keep his seat in 2006 after lining up with conservatives so often that liberals lost faith in him.
After his defeat, though, Lieberman grabbed a spot on the general election ballot as an independent and managed to win another term in the Senate, where he often allied with Collins.
Whether Collins considers entering the gubernatorial fray, a number of candidates are already campaigning for the seat. Among them are Republican Mary Mayhew, former Health and Human Services commissioner and a LePage favorite; Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills; former House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat; and state Treasurer Terry Hayes, an independent.
LePage, who is in his second term, is barred by law from seeking a third.