It’s looking like a long, hot summer for Sen. Susan M. Collins, the famously moderate Maine Republican who represents the Democratic Party’s best hope for a defection on President Trump’s pivotal Supreme Court nomination.
Ms. Collins, who holds a key vote on the historic court selection, has so far resisted pressure from the left to oppose automatically any Trump pick or push to delay the confirmation process until after the November elections.
Instead, she said Sunday that she wanted to see a candidate who would “respect precedent,” which would rule out nominees bent on overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
“I would not support a nominee who demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade because that would mean to me that their judicial philosophy did not include a respect for established decisions, established law,” Ms. Collins said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
She said she was encouraged by her Thursday meeting with Mr. Trump because he solicited her views on nominees, assured her he would not ask candidates their position on Roe and added five candidates to his initial list of 25.
“The president listened very intently to what [Sen.] Lisa Murkowski and I said. And I got the feeling that he was still deliberating and had not yet reached a decision and that this was genuine outreach on his part,” Ms. Collins said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Her measured response inflamed leftists demanding that she oppose any Trump pick, arguing that the president is sure to replace retiring Justice Anthony M. Kennedy with a jurist hostile to Roe — no matter what the White House might have told Ms. Collins.
Activists have launched a campaign to mail coat hangers to Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski of Alaska, the only two pro-choice Republicans in the 51-49 Senate. Both of their votes would be needed to defeat a nominee.
The leftist group Indivisible announced “10 days of action,” urging activists to target eight senators, including Ms. Collins and Ms. Murkowski, and “flood their offices” with comments.
“Keep the pressure on: @SenatorCollins is one of a handful of swing voters who will decide the fate of @RealDonaldTrump’s #SCOTUS pick,” tweeted the Democratic Coalition, which bills itself as the nation’s “largest grass-roots Resistance organization.”
Mr. Trump plans to announce his selection July 9. He told reporters Friday that he had narrowed his search to about five candidates, including two women, and that the confirmation process with Senate Democrats “is probably going to be vicious.”
“We’ve got great people,” Mr. Trump said on Fox’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” “It is exciting. Outside of war and peace, of course, the most important decision you make is the selection of a Supreme Court judge, if you get it. As you know, there are many presidents who never get a choice.”
Mr. Trump said Sunday that he would probably not question nominees on their stance on the landmark decision legalizing abortion nationwide, although Ms. Collins described him as more emphatic in private.
“The president told me in our meeting that he would not ask that question, and that is what he has most recently said on the advice of his attorney,” Ms. Collins said. “So I think what he said as a candidate may not have been informed by the legal advice that he now has, that it would be inappropriate to ask a nominee how he or she would rule on a specific issue.”
Leftists insisted that the Federalist Society, which has advised the White House on judicial nominees, would offer up only prospective nominees known to be pro-life, even if they never mention the Roe decision during the vetting process.
“[Mr. Trump] doesn’t have to ask them,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The records of those on his short list have been prescreened by the Federalist Society. If you want him to seriously consider additional nominees, then delay this vote until next year.”
Ms. Collins also drew sneers by saying that she didn’t believe Justice Neil M. Gorsuch would vote to overturn Roe. She noted her lengthy conversation with him during last year’s nomination process about his respect for judicial precedent.
Brian Fallon, a former national press secretary for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, called Ms. Collins’ position a joke. Brookings Institution fellow Susan Hennessey tweeted, “No one who has survived in politics as long as Susan Collins has is actually this naive.”
“Susan Collins is either too stupid or too much of a liar to be trusted,” tweeted Ian Millhiser, justice editor of ThinkProgress.
Ms. Collins is familiar with the criticism, including warnings that her bipartisan legacy could be upended by her vote on the next Supreme Court justice if Roe is ultimately overturned.
“I know that’s what the left is saying,” she said. “And that’s just so at odds with my record. I have year after year been named the most bipartisan member of the whole United States Senate. I have proved my independence.”
Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society and a key White House adviser on judicial nominations, said the goal is to find candidates who interpret the Constitution as written, including “taking into account major precedents.”
“None of the people who are being talked about now in the public space in the media are people who have a clear position on Roe v. Wade,” Mr. Leo told “Fox News Sunday.” “The most important thing here is a record showing fairness, someone who listens very carefully to arguments on both sides, someone who tries to keep an open mind.”
Ms. Collins voted last year for Mr. Gorsuch, a conservative, but she also supported both of President Obama’s nominees, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, who are firmly entrenched on the court’s liberal wing.
“I care deeply about who serves on the court,” she said. “I have voted against justices and judges, and I have voted for them. I supported both of President Obama’s appointments to the Supreme Court.”
She described the Roe decision legalizing abortion as “a ruling that has been settled law for 45 years, and it involves a constitutional right and has been reaffirmed by the court 26 years ago.”
“I always have the same kinds of discussions in my office,” Ms. Collins said. “I do a lot of work on the record of the appointee. And I ask probing questions to try to determine whether they are going to be an activist judge with an agenda, which I don’t want on either the left or the right.”