U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ decision to not endorse Donald Trump marks a big departure from the senior senator’s long history of backing the Republican Party’s presidential nominee — a decision that could have a big effect on his bid to win over the state’s 2nd Congressional District, while opening the door for other prominent Republicans to speak out against him.
Disregard for common decency. Barrages of ill-informed comments. No self-restraint. Dangerous. That is how Collins described Trump in the Washington Post column she used to disavow his candidacy.
Other elected officials — other Republicans — have made similar statements. But, unlike others before her, Collins’ rebuke could have a big effect, according to local and national analysts.
“I think when someone like Collins, who really is a true centrist in this day and age, says, ‘I won’t even vote for him,’ that can be damaging, both within her own state, but I think nationally as well,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
Zelizer says Collins has enough clout, locally and nationally, to affect Trump’s bid for the White House.
In Maine, Collins’ decision could affect Trump’s effort to swipe at least one of the state’s four electoral votes. Trump has already acknowledged that his recent campaign stops here, including one last week in Portland, are designed to capitalize on the state’s unique way of dividing its electoral votes.
Nate Silver, the noted statistician from the blog Five-Thirty-Eight, has included Maine among scenarios in which Trump could win the presidency.
Trump still has the support of Gov. Paul LePage, a leader in the Maine Republican Party.
“The last few days, media has been asking me, ‘Are you still supporting Donald Trump?’ The answer is very simple. Yes, more than ever,” LePage said last week.
But despite the backing of someone as influential as LePage, observers believe Collins’ announcement is problematic for Trump.
“I think it definitely hurts Trump in Maine. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, because Susan Collins is very popular in Maine,” says University of Maine professor Mark Brewer.
How popular? According to a survey by the Morning Consult published in December, Collins’ 78 percent approval rating was the second highest of any United States senator. Only Vermont’s Bernie Sanders ranked higher. And her support is bipartisan — Republicans, independents, even a significant number of self-identifying Democrats, appear to like her.
According to Lance Dutson, a Republican consultant and former campaign spokesman for Collins, a politician with that kind of widespread appeal can be a persuasive force among voters — especially undecided voters, especially in Maine.
“We have a very small-town political ethos. People look to their leaders for guidance on this stuff,” Dutson says. “And the voters of Maine, and the voters of the 2nd District, certainly know Susan Collins a lot better than they know Donald Trump.”
Zelizer says Collins’ decision to publicly come out against Trump is likely both political and philosophical. Collins, he says, has made no secret about her misgivings for Trump. When asked to comment on his more bombastic statements, she’s done so.
But she has also made a point of saying that it’s her custom to support the Republican presidential nominee.
So what’s changed? The polls, says Zelizer. It’s only August, but recent polls show Trump losing significant support. Meanwhile, Democrats are making the election about Trump, which if successful, may not just affect Trump, but down-ballot candidates including those running for Congress.
And that, says Zelizer, has prominent Republicans like Collins in a panic.
“They are terrified. So there is a strategic element, sending a signal to the rest of the party that Senate Republicans have to separate themselves from Donald Trump and show voters they’re different,” he says.
Zelizer notes that Collins’ announcement follows a statement by 50 national security advisors to Republican leaders who believe that Trump’s election would be disastrous.
The Republican opposition to Trump’s candidacy is growing louder, and at a time when the party typically unifies behind its nominee. Zelizer says other candidates have encountered insurgencies, but those have happened prior to party conventions — not after.
“This kind of level of public, elite opposition that’s emerging post convention — that’s pretty new and unprecedented,” he says.
And that means Collins’ repudiation of Trump could mark the beginning of a new wave of opposition from Republicans who have never been comfortable with his candidacy.
“It just gives more political space for another Republican to do it. And they’re not seen as betraying their party because there’s too many Republicans doing it at this point to be seen as a betrayal,” Zelizer says.