A bright light will shine on Sen. Susan Collins in a Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, and her own political fate could be on the line.
She is among the chamber’s four Republican incumbents targeted in Democrats’ plan to flip control of the Senate in 2020, and her impeachment vote is hot ammunition for her opponents.
The impeachment trial will test the moderate brand that has helped the 67-year-old senator become a fixture of Maine politics and put her on the brink of serving a fifth term in the world’s most deliberative body.
“As for impeachment, that’s the $1 million question,” said Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Of course it will impact the race, but until we know how Collins votes, it’s hard to say what the exact impact will be.”
Ms. Collins carefully steered in the middle lane this week.
She backed the trial process advocated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, that would put off a decision on calling witnesses until the evidence from the House is heard by the senators. Democrats want the decision on whether to call witnesses to be made before the start of the trial.
But she also echoed Democrats’ criticism of Mr. McConnell for pledging “total coordination” with the White House.
“It is inappropriate, in my judgment, for senators on either side of the aisle to prejudge the evidence before they have heard what is presented to us,” Ms. Collins said in an interview on Maine Public Radio.
She has prepared for a tough reelection fight.
She has raised $5.6 million for her campaign and has been running campaign ads roughly a year out from the election. The ads tout her “independence,” her bipartisan work on prescription drugs, and her ability to bring home the bacon as one of the most senior members of the Senate.
“That is really unusual to me,” said James Melcher, professor of political science at the University of Maine Farmington. “I don’t ever remember a member of Congress running ads in a year prior to an election, and she has been able to do that because she has been extraordinarily successful raising money.”
Democrats and their outside allies believe Ms. Collins is more vulnerable than in previous election cycles, saying she has shown that when push comes to shove she is just another partisan in the age of Mr. Trump.
Ms. Collins was smack in the middle of partisan infighting in 2018 when she delivered an impassioned defense of confirming Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, whose appointment was nearly derailed by unproven allegations of sexual misdeeds when he was in high school and college.
On the floor of the Senate, she announced her decision to support his confirmation, picked apart Democrats’ objections on both legal and moral grounds, and lashed out at liberal groups that tried to take him down.
It was a defining moment for Ms. Collins, solidifying her support among Mr. Trump’s backers while opening her up to a deluge of criticism from left-wing activists.
Bev Uhlenhake, chairwoman of the Penobscot County Maine Democratic Committee, said Ms. Collins remains popular in the state, but that she has never heard from so many people that they are uncertain about how they plan to vote in the 2020 Senate race.
“I think people feel like she has lost touch with the state of Maine and the way people feel,” Ms. Uhlenhake said. “I do think that the Kavanaugh decision and the Kavanaugh speech is one that influenced where people are at.
“Other people talk about tax reform, but she still has a very strong following,” she said. “I don’t think there is anything that leads me to believe it is going to be an easy race for a Democrat.”
Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial could be a case of dj vu for Ms. Collins. She is already getting attention as a possible GOP defector.
Mr. Melcher said another question for Ms. Collins is how Mr. Kavanaugh rules on abortion-related cases after the senator received assurances from him that he would not overturn Roe v. Wade.
“Is Kavanaugh going to vote on an abortion case in a way that is going to inflame all this stuff again?” he said. “If Kavanaugh seems to go on a more pro-life side of that question, that is going to be something that people are going to say Susan Collins knew this all along, she is either naive or she is not being honest with us.”
The Supreme Court in March is scheduled to hear a case on a Louisiana abortion law that pro-choice advocates say will “decimate access to abortion for people in Louisiana.”
The high court’s ruling is expected in June, right around the same time as the Democratic primary race that will determine Ms. Collins’ general election opponent.
Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sara Gideon is viewed as the front-runner in the Democratic race.
Ms. Gideon has secured endorsements from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-choice American. She has raised $4.2 million for her bid since entering the race in June.
Ms. Gideon, though, is not a shoo-in. She is facing a stiff primary challenge from Betsy Sweet. Ms. Sweet is running on a far-left vision and has secured the support of Justice Democrats, the liberal group that helped launch Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political career in New York.