A little less than three years ago, then-Gov. Paul LePage took to the airwaves to bash a fellow Republican and the state’s senior U.S. senator – Susan Collins.

Collins, now the only Republican from New England in Congress, had weeks earlier denounced the party’s nominee for president, writing in a Washington Post guest column that she wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump because he was unworthy of the office.

“I think Susan Collins is done in Maine; I think her decision to go against the Maine Republicans really cooked her goose,” LePage told WGAN radio host Matt Gagnon, who also heads the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, a nonprofit, free-market think tank, and is one of LePage’s most vocal supporters.

The former governor’s upbraiding came just days after Trump had won the election, and speculation swirled about whether Collins would try to succeed LePage when his second consecutive term as governor came to a close in 2018.

LePage said the only way Collins could become governor in Maine would be if she ran as an independent. Later, he said he believed her criticism of Trump was her attempt to land a job with the administration of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, had Clinton won the election.

Fast-forward 27 months, and LePage is singing Collins’ praises ahead of the 2020 election and saying he’s always supported her. He has also said he is considering another run for the governor in 2022 and would undoubtedly benefit from Collins’ significant network of financial donors.

LePage declined a request for an interview but issued a statement through his longtime political consultant, Brent Littlefield.

“I’m supporting Susan,” LePage said. “She is tough and a fighter. She has worked hard, and I know she will continue to work for all Mainers once she wins.”

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Collins’ campaign, said she was grateful for the support she was receiving from Mainers with a “wide variety of perspectives.”

“It’s incredibly difficult being a moderate in politics, especially these days when people like Sen. Collins are constantly being criticized from extremists on the far left and the far right,” Kelley said. “But she still believes that a majority of Mainers, and Americans, reside in the middle.”

Kelley said Collins has always believed that people should be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

“And there have certainly been times when some officeholders, both Republicans and Democrats, have made clear they did not agree with one of her decisions,” he said. “But what matters most to Mainers is that Sen. Collins doesn’t rush to a partisan corner. She takes the time to study an issue and reaches a decision only after she has considered viewpoints from all sides.”

The praise from LePage comes after he penned a 2017 column for The Wall Street Journal taking Collins and the state’s other U.S. senator, Angus King, an independent, to task for siding with Democrats and two other Republicans in rejecting a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Many of the points that LePage made in the column echoed an open letter he wrote to Collins earlier that year, urging her to support a “conservative, free market” approach, but his column was far more critical.

“Ms. Collins and Mr. King have ignored these ideas, since they are more interested in preening for the cameras than in making real progress,” LePage wrote.

But the rift between Collins and LePage’s more conservative Republican base, which arose from the tea party movement of 2009 and 2010, seems to have been largely mended. The reason for that is simple, according to former Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster: Republicans have no other option, and Collins over the last year has cast several votes they approve of.

Webster himself warned in a 2010 Newsweek story that Collins and former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, also considered one of the last moderate Republicans in Congress at the time, needed to recognize the shift to the right that their party was making back home.

“They’re not going to be replaced, but we need to express to them that Maine isn’t as liberal as they think it is,” Webster told the news magazine.

Collins has taken votes to protect federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a move that alienated Christian abortion opponents, another significant voting block of the right-wing base.

But in the last year, Webster said, Collins has placated and regalvanized her support among the most conservative Republicans – first by voting to confirm Trump’s controversial and anti-abortion U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and then by voting to support a large federal income tax cut.

“Here’s why the Republican activists, who may be more conservative than Collins, are beginning to come around to support Collins,” Webster said. “Because she worked really hard to make that happen.”

But while she has gained some increased loyalty from the right, some of her votes have also eroded her support among moderate Democrats, especially women, who want their reproductive rights defended.

Gagnon, the radio host, said there’s no question the Kavanaugh vote was a dangerous one for Collins and likely damaged support she previously enjoyed from Democrats and some independent voters.

On top of that, Gagnon said, there’s an awareness that’s developed among conservatives that even if Collins doesn’t always vote as they would like, she is going to vote the way they want at least some of the time.

“You might be nervous about Sen. Collins, because she is moderate and centrist and independent and likes to flirt with the idea of doing any number of things you don’t like,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you know for a fact that a Democratic politician or even an independent politician, like Angus King, is going to end up voting in a way you find terrible.”

Collins may face another litmus test if the House moves forward with impeachment proceedings against Trump and the Senate holds a trial.

A vote to convict Trump in an impeachment trial would ostracize her from the conservative base she’s regained the favor of in recent months. But a vote against Trump could regain her favor among moderate Democrats and independents.

For Collins, it would be the second time she’s had to take an impeachment vote. In 1999, she and Snowe both sided with Democrats in finding then-President Bill Clinton not guilty on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by Paula Jones. Clinton was ultimately acquitted of the charges as the Senate was unable to reach the two-thirds majority required to remove him from office.

James Melcher, an author and a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said few Democrats will remember her votes to acquit Clinton more than 20 years ago.

Melcher said Collins’ vote on Kavanaugh was going to cost her one way or the other, even though it was the second vote for a conservative Trump Supreme Court nominee, the first being for Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“These kinds of polarizing votes make for very tough sledding for someone who clearly wants to be seen as having a bipartisan approach (to) the job,” Melcher wrote in an email, “and if anything, having impeachment come up would make it even more so. I would think she hopes such a vote never makes it to the Senate.”

Webster thinks the risk Collins faces with the Republican base between now and Election Day 2020 isn’t that those voters will vote for somebody else, but that they simply won’t vote at all.

He said he was speaking with a diehard Republican over breakfast recently and the voter told him he couldn’t even remember who was running against Collins when she was last re-elected in 2014. “But he was upset with her about something,” Webster said. “And he told me, ‘Last time, I left (the ballot) blank.'”

Webster said he believed Republicans are less likely to do that in 2020, however, because they feel the alternative to Collins would be anathema to the conservative cause.


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