AUGUSTA, Maine — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is Maine’s most popular politician and if she runs for governor in 2018, she may be a shoo-in — if fellow Republicans don’t block her path to the Blaine House.
The senator was one of three Republicans to vote against party leaders’ latest bid to repeal the Affordable Care Act last month, dealing a fatal blow to one of President Donald Trump’s key priorities. It led Gov. Paul LePage to escalate a intra-party war against her.
The conservative governor told party members in Canaan that she’ll “back down” on the gubernatorial run she’s considering if his base rejects her. He wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying Collins and Sen. Angus King, an independent who voted with her, are “dangerous.”
Collins has been named the most moderate U.S. senator and has irked conservatives before. If she stays in the Senate through her term’s end in early 2021, this may be little more than a flashpoint, since she regularly registers approval ratings above 65 percent here.
But if she runs for governor in 2018, several active Republicans told the Bangor Daily News that they would expect a tough primary fight. Mary Mayhew, LePage’s former health and human services commissioner, is the only Republican to declare so far with more hopefuls on the horizon.
Charlie Webster of Farmington, a former Maine Republican Party chairman, said if Collins entered the race months ago, other challengers may have scattered, but they won’t now.
“Honestly, I do not believe she can win the Republican primary,” said Bob Emrich, a Plymouth pastor and board member of the socially conservative Christian Civic League of Maine.
But moderate Republicans see rejecting Collins as nonsensical. She’d be the odds-on favorite to win a general election and they say her popularity could win a primary for her.
Mary Small, a former legislator from Bath, is still irked by a LePage-backed effort that ousted state Sen. Linda Baker, R-Topsham, in a 2016 primary to a conservative who lost the general election. She said “wackies” can dominate primaries, but Collins “has such broad support.”
And Jon Courtney, a Pownal lobbyist and former legislative leader, called Collins “one of the most successful politicians” in Maine and said he thinks anyone who takes her on will fail.
“You’re never going to find someone who aligns with your positions 100 percent, but you support people who are loyal to you,” he said. “That’s how I feel about Susan.”
That loyalty to all Republicans can be measured in dollars, but some relationships could fray. Her political action committee has given more than $115,000 to in-state party candidates and groups — including LePage and other harder-line conservatives — since the 2010 election.
Most of that came in small, reliable donations to legislative candidates. Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, got $800 from Collins’ Dirigo PAC across three elections. She’s also one of the Legislature’s top welfare hawks, opposing Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
Expansion could be a key issue in a hypothetical primary: LePage has vetoed it five times, Collins said in June that Maine may want to consider Indiana’s conservative approach to expansion and Mayhew called Collins’ stance “concerning” at her June campaign launch.
Sanderson said she was “disappointed” in Collins’ vote, noting that she has been a supporter of repealing the health care law and was ”very clear and strong on those points.”
However, it’s a complex issue. Collins voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and later voted to repeal it, though she said during her 2014 election that it was too late to fully repeal it. That has been her line since and she has renewed a call for a bipartisan fix since the vote.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the latest Senate bill would have left 16 million more people uninsured by 2026. An earlier plan would have disproportionately raised premiums in Aroostook, Washington and Hancock counties, a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis said.
Collins’ office didn’t grant a Thursday interview request, but spokeswoman Annie Clark said too many face “skyrocketing premiums, unaffordable deductibles, and diminishing choices” under current law. But she said the Senate bill would have “made matters worse.”
LePage has had differing stances on congressional repeal bids as they evolved, saying in a Friday statement that the Senate bill “was far from perfect,” but “that’s not the point” and that Collins killed debate on repeal by voting against the bill.
David Emery, a former Republican congressman from Tenants Harbor, said he understood Collins’ stance, using the Affordable Care Act — which was passed with only Democratic support — as an example of why one-party solutions are bad in the long run.
He said if Collins ran, she’d get his support, saying “politics has to be practical.”
“It has to be built around how you advance your core philosophy,” he said, “and certainly, you can do that better with one of your own in the Blaine House rather than someone who has an alien philosophy.”
But she’s going to face plenty of skepticism from Republicans. Jonathan McKane, a conservative former Newcastle legislator, said “voters are paying attention.” Carol Weston, a former Montville legislator, said Collins was thinking only in terms of “what I think will keep votes for me.”
“Overall, she’s done a great job,” said Webster, the former party chairman. “You just have to stand for certain principles and consistently stand for them.”
Mary Adams, a grassroots Republican activist from Garland, finished sixth in the 1994 gubernatorial primary that Collins won before losing the general election to King. She counts the senator as a friend and called her “the nicest woman,” but she’s not happy with her politics.
She said Collins’ health care vote “disappointed history” and that Collins “turned her back” on LePage, Mayhew and other Maine conservatives who have pushed national health care reform ideas similar to those passed here under a Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011.
“I will always want her for a friend, but I don’t really want her for a senator anymore,” Adams said.
And for a governor?
“Oh, heavens no,” she replied.
BDN writer Christopher Cousins contributed to this report.