STANDISH, Maine — As the Senate emptied Saturday, the tension of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation finally lessening, Sen. Susan M. Collins went desk to desk picking up discarded copies of the Congressional Record from the day before.
They contained the official text of her 44-minute address to colleagues Friday afternoon — a speech that took the wind out of Democrats’ opposition, sealed Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation and, according to her colleagues, will go down in history as a masterful statement of centrist principles in a chamber where the political center has all but disappeared.
If liberal activists have their way, Ms. Collins will disappear from the Senate, too.
They had been counting on her to buck her party and vote against Justice Kavanaugh, a move that might have doomed his nomination. They had even attempted what some senators called a “bribe,” raising millions of dollars in campaign pledges that they said they would donate to her opponent if she voted for President Trump’s nominee.
They had reason to hope she was on their side after Ms. Collins late last month demanded that the FBI look into sexual misconduct accusations lobbed at Justice Kavanaugh, dating back to high school and college parties in the 1980s.
Even after the FBI returned with no evidence to back up those accounts, Democrats denounced the investigation and pleaded with Republicans to join them in rejecting Justice Kavanaugh. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who sits in the chamber next to Ms. Collins, joined the Democrats, saying Justice Kavanaugh wasn’t the right person for the high court.
Then Ms. Collins took to the Senate floor Friday afternoon, in the most anticipated floor speech in years.
“It is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy,” she warned before taking a scalpel to Democrats’ grievances against the jurist.
Where they saw opposition to Obamacare in his rulings, she saw a careful judge whose reasoning that the Affordable Care Act was a use of Congress’ taxing power closely mirrored the logic that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. would later use to declare the 2010 health care law mostly constitutional.
Democrats read the tea leaves and saw a justice committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a national right to abortion. But Ms. Collins, after hours of interviewing Justice Kavanaugh in what one senator later called a masterly legal clinic, said she doesn’t see it.
“In short, his views on precedent would preclude attempts to do by stealth that which one has committed not to do overtly,” she said.
And where Democrats saw a conspiracy in the pick, saying Mr. Trump wants Justice Kavanaugh on the court to shield him from legal jeopardy in the special counsel’s Russia investigation, Ms. Collins pointed to three cases in which the judge repeatedly cited in his confirmation hearing as guiding lights. All of them involved the high court’s constraint of the power of an overzealous president.
She also pointed to Justice Kavanaugh’s ruling on the circuit court in favor of rights of detainees in the war on terrorism — a case in which he rejected the argument of President George W. Bush, the very man he had served for years as staff secretary and who had appointed him to the appeals court.
Turning to the assault accusations, Ms. Collins said she found accuser Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony “sincere, painful and compelling.” But she said there was no corroborating evidence, and indeed those Ms. Blasey Ford said were witness to the party where she said she was assaulted have all refuted her.
“We will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be,” Ms. Collins said.
When she finished her speech Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the remaining undecided Democrat, quickly announced he, too, would back Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, guaranteeing the judge a smooth vote Saturday.
Back home in Maine, the debate over Ms. Collins’ future was heating up.
Steve Nason, 44, said he had always questioned Ms. Collins’ claims to be a moderate but that her speech impressed him with its thoroughness and thoughtfulness.
“The threats and opposition she has faced as of late did not deter her from her duties and convictions,” he said. “I applaud her efforts. If she had demonstrated the same commitment to the truth and came up with a different conclusion, I would still support her based on her efforts.”
But Penny Collins, no relation to Susan Collins and a 39-year-old social worker who was dismayed by Justice Kavanaugh’s defense of himself against the sexual assault claim, said the senator will suffer for her defense of the nominee.
“While we are in these sort of times where we are having hard conversations and people are really split, you don’t get to be moderate or a centrist anymore when you have moved forward this guy who acted the way he acted, and to me he is almost a caricature of white male privilege,” the social worker said.
In Washington, Democrats’ disappointment was clear.
“History will judge this decision,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, told reporters minutes after the speech.
Critics outside the Capitol included horror writer Stephen King and former newsman Dan Rather, who accused Susan Collins of becoming a tool of Republican Party power.
Former Obama National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice, who was forced to pull her nomination for secretary of state over concerns that she lied to the country in 2012 about the Benghazi terrorist attacks, hinted that she might run to unseat Ms. Collins in 2020, first on Twitter on Friday and then in an appearance Sunday at The New Yorker Festival.
Ms. Collins “put party and politics over her own stated principles [and] betrayed women across this country,” Ms. Rice told the festival audience. “It was on that basis that I decided I would think about it.”
In an appearance earlier Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Ms. Collins said she would face that challenge and quickly called into question the Democrat’s ties to the New England state.
“As far as Susan Rice is concerned, her family has a home in Maine, but she doesn’t live in the state of Maine. Everybody knows that,” Ms. Collins said.
Whether it’s Ms. Rice or someone else, the Democratic challenger will quickly be able to tap the $3.4 million in campaign cash raised by the liberal advocates who tried to sway Ms. Collins’ vote — $1 million of which was pledged within hours of her speech.
The sudden surge in donations to “Either Sen. Collins VOTES NO on Kavanaugh OR we fund her future opponent” briefly crashed the Crowdpac website hosting the campaign.
“During Collins’ floor speech, our site received 90 times the average amount of traffic we see hourly,” said Gisel Kordestani, Crowdpac’s chief executive.
From the right, though, Ms. Collins’ speech was hailed as a landmark statement of decency and fairness.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who had been the star of the Kavanaugh show for Republicans until Ms. Collins’ speech, called her address “one of the most consequential speeches in the history of the United States.”
“It should be required viewing in every civics class in America,” he said. “The country needed what Susan Collins provided today — reason, facts and an understanding of who we are as a nation. She rejected winning at all costs and the politics of personal destruction.”
In an appearance Sunday, Ms. Collins said she wasn’t backing down.
“Over the years, the people of Maine have trusted me to exercise my best judgment. That’s what I did in this case,” she said. “Whatever the voters decide, but I’m going to do what I think is right.”
• Andrew Blake and Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.