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Susan Collins Is Trying to Stay in the Political Center. But That May Not Exist Anymore

7 minute read

Just off the soaring, tourist-filled rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, down a chandeliered hallway, up a few floors in what feels like the world’s tiniest elevator, in a narrow, echoing corridor, lies the hideaway of Senator Susan Collins. The private office, a perk doled out by seniority, is appointed in creams and florals and feels warm but not exactly homey. Most of all, it is secluded–no staff, no uninvited visitors, no constituents. And it was in this hidden space in late September that the Republican from Maine weighed one of the most divisive decisions of her 21-year career in Congress: whether to vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Months later, artifacts of that episode are still visible. Two newspapers with reports on Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearings sit on the wooden desk: a copy of the New York Times, with an image of Kavanaugh’s now infamous high school calendar on the front page, and the Washington Post from the following day, showing Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused the judge of sexual assault, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, both of them near tears.

In those jagged weeks, Collins faced an onslaught of pressure from the left to oppose the conservative judge’s nomination. There were the coat hangers: 3,000 of them mailed to her office, meant to evoke the era of back-alley abortions. (She donated most of them, including 400 she sent to a thrift store in Maine.) There were phone calls from people threatening to slit her throat, she says, or telling her staffers they should have abortions and then bleed out and die. There was a ricin threat and an anthrax scare. A young female staffer in Maine quit because of the constant harassment.

None of it daunted Collins, who has spent decades as a pivotal swing vote in the Senate. Recalling the episode on a cold November afternoon, Collins says she was “baffled” that activists thought they could threaten her into voting their way. “I would never be intimidated by that,” she says, sitting up straighter in her burgundy leather chair.

In the end, Collins cast one of the decisive votes for Kavanaugh, announcing her decision with a speech that shredded any illusions that she was unsure about her choice. Her vigorous defense of Kavanaugh, coming from one of the Senate’s last remaining moderates, showed just how polarized the chamber has become in the Trump era. And it highlighted how difficult it is to be a centrist when everyone else has retreated to hyperpartisan corners. In this moment in American politics, Collins can seem like the last of her kind.

Collins came to the Senate in 1997, the latest in a long tradition of moderate Maine Republicans. The other Senator from Maine when she arrived, Olympia Snowe, was from a similar mold: conservative on fiscal policy and national security but a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights. And it wasn’t just Maine. Two decades ago, there were 10 Republicans representing New England in Congress.

Today those moderate Northeastern Republicans are all but extinct. As of 2019, Collins is the only one left in either chamber. Over her career, a chasm has widened between the two political parties. And Collins’ own voting record tracks the shift. In 2017, Trump’s first year in office, she voted along party lines 87% of the time, according to a CNN analysis–more than any other year she’s been a Senator. At the same time, she was also the Republican Senator most likely to break ranks. “I’m very worried about that,” Collins says. “The center is diminishing.”

It was in this environment that Collins emerged as the target of Kavanaugh’s opponents. Amid the coat hangers and the threats, there was only one instance in which Collins says she was truly afraid. Late one night, Collins arrived home in the pouring rain. It was dark, the streets around her Washington townhouse were deserted, and her hands were full with her briefcase and a bag of dry cleaning. A man was waiting for her. As she approached her front door, he shone a light in her face and screamed anti-Kavanaugh screeds. “Stop harassing me!” she yelled back at him, shielding herself with her bags as she fumbled with her keys. She made it inside, safe but shaken.

As Collins considered her decision on Kavanaugh, she knew that half the country would hate whatever she did. But if anything, the protesters may have had the opposite of their intended effect, making Collins dig in her heels. “It is certainly obvious to me,” she says, “that my life would have been a lot easier if I had voted the other way.” She announced her vote to confirm Kavanaugh in a nearly hour-long speech on the Senate floor on Oct. 5. It was a vociferous defense of the judge and a searing indictment of a confirmation process that she said “looks more like a caricature of a gutter-level political campaign than a solemn occasion.” The Senator delivering that speech was not someone waffling in the middle; she was a woman voting confidently, granting a generational win to conservatives and dashing any liberal hopes of sinking Kavanaugh. If there is a center in the Senate anymore, Collins wasn’t in it that day.

Collins’ own life has mostly gone back to normal, and she’s had some time to ponder the state of a country that seems to have lost its ability to come together. “We’ve seen a coarsening of conversation, a lack of dialogue and an absence of respect for those who disagree with us,” she says. “Instead, there’s now vehement ill will toward people who simply have a different viewpoint on an issue.”

Collins is up for re-election in 2020. In these circumstances, does she really want to run again? “That is my intention,” she says, although she has not announced a final decision. In a re-election campaign, Collins could get hammered from both sides, with Democrats still irate over the Kavanaugh vote and the GOP upset by her occasional willingness to go against the party, as when she voted against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 or voted against some Trump Cabinet nominees. According to one tracking poll, Collins’ approval rating in Maine dropped 9 percentage points overall after her vote on Kavanaugh, to 45%, and her approval rating among Democrats dropped a whopping 25 percentage points.

Collins says she remains optimistic about the Senate’s ability to make progress. “There are still more issues that unite us than divide us,” she insists. The Senate just passed a sweeping bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill, which Collins co-sponsored. She wants to pass a comprehensive infrastructure bill and legislation to lower prescription-drug prices, two issues with some support on both sides of the aisle.

Here in Collins’ hideaway, where the crumpled, emotional faces of Kavanaugh and Ford still stare out from the front pages on her private desk, a rebirth of bipartisanship feels like a fantasy. Still, for at least the next two years, Collins will keep operating from the center of a Congress pulling away from her, trying to do the work she cares about. Even if half the country hates the way she votes.

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Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.Rogers@time.com