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Baker, long averse to national GOP politics, backs Susan Collins in Maine Senate race

Governor Charlie Baker, who has long tried to avoid national politics, is backing Susan Collins in new super PAC ads.
Governor Charlie Baker, who has long tried to avoid national politics, is backing Susan Collins in new super PAC ads.YouTube

Governor Charlie Baker is riding to the defense of Senator Susan Collins in her heated reelection fight, appearing in a series of ads that try to bolster the Maine Republican’s moderate, bipartisan image.

Bankrolled by the super PAC arm of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a national group that is also backing President Trump’s reelection, the $450,000 ad campaign features digital spots with Baker, former senator Joe Lieberman, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who, like his Massachusetts counterpart, is a popular, blue-state Republican often at odds with the national Republican Party.

Whether the out-of-state support will resonate favorably with Mainers is unclear. But for Baker, who has routinely avoided tangling in national politics, the development immediately drew a rebuke from Massachusetts Democrats eager to see Collins’s seat flipped.

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The four-term Maine Republican has long enjoyed a centrist reputation, part of a once-more-plentiful coterie of moderate New England Republicans in Washington. But her stature as an independent standard-bearer in the Senate has taken a beating in her reelection battle against Democrat Sara Gideon, the Maine House speaker.

Collins has had to repeatedly answer for votes supporting Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court and Trump’s tax breaks, and in a debate last week, she sidestepped a question about whether she’d vote for Trump in November after not doing so in 2016. The Lincoln Project, a super PAC run by anti-Trump Republicans, has runs ads calling her a “fraud.”

On Wednesday, Quinnipiac University released a poll showing Collins trailing Gideon by 12 points, 54 percent to 42 percent. A New York Times/Siena College survey released Friday showed her trailing by 5 points.

Enter Baker (and Lieberman and Hogan).

In a 15-second ad, Baker tells Maine voters that he works with Democrats and Republicans in Massachusetts “to get things done.”

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“Susan Collins does that in the Senate,” he says, calling her “pro-environment, pro-women, pro-Maine.”

“We need more leaders like Susan. I hope you reelect her,” Baker says.

The decision to wade into Collins’s reelection fight is a rare example of Baker willingly dipping into national Republican politics, and one of its most closely watched Senate races to boot.

Baker, who easily won a second term in 2018, has tried mightily, and often successfully, to inoculate himself from the national GOP brand, an effort that’s included using his State of the Commonwealth addresses to lob criticisms — both overt and subtle — at Trump and Washington’s partisan politics. He even sought to put more conservative members on his own ticket at arm’s length in 2018.

In some polls, it’s helped give Baker a higher approval rating among Massachusetts’ Democratic voters than those within his own party. And he showed a willingness to duck his head into other races, including among Democrats, throwing an unexpected endorsement last month to Representative Richard E. Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, ahead of his Democratic primary victory.

But crossing state lines to help Collins could dent Baker’s political capital among Democrats and independents who view Democrats' efforts to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans as crucial. A Democratic-led chamber could help bolster nominee Joe Biden’s agenda, should he win the White House, or solidify a congressional counterbalance to a Trump second term.

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Baker has not said whether he will run for a third term as governor in 2022.

“The governor thinks that Susan Collins has been a strong and moderate advocate for Maine, and Maine would do well to continue to see her serve,” said Jim Conroy, a Baker adviser.

Prominent Massachusetts Democrats quickly disagreed. Attorney General Maura Healey, a leading progressive voice in the state party, described a vote for Collins as a “a vote for Mitch McConnell and Trump’s agenda.” (McConnell is the Senate majority Leader.)

“It’s not good for Maine, and it’s not good for Massachusetts. Charlie Baker should know that,” the Charlestown Democrat wrote on Twitter.

Added state Senator Eric P. Lesser, a former Obama White House aide: “Does this include a request that Susan Collins and the Senate GOP stop stonewalling a desperately needed COVID19 aid package for states including Massachusetts?”

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s Victory Fund is funding four spots, which also include individual ads with Lieberman and Hogan and a 30-second one featuring those two and Baker.

Lieberman was Al Gore’s running mate on the 2000 Democratic presidential ticket, and later won reelection to the Senate as an independent. Hogan, Maryland’s second-term governor, had considered challenging Trump in the Republican primary but decided against it.

For the Republican Jewish Coalition, which says it’s targeting “moderate swing voters" with the ads, Baker would seem a logical choice to help bolster Collins, the lone Republican in New England’s Washington delegation. He’s a popular, socially liberal Republican from a nearby state who, at times, has forcefully criticized Trump.

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Baker has past ties to the RJC: He traveled to Las Vegas in 2016 to speak at its spring leadership meeting, which also included Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Rick Scott of Florida, then the state’s governor.

The group has said it intends to put $10 million toward helping reelect Trump, whom it has framed as a Middle East “peacemaker.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.