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Empowered by an odds-defying win, Susan Collins is ready to deal

Sen. Susan Collins has emerged from the toughest re-election battle of her career more influential than ever, and ready to play a crucial deal-making role in a divided Senate.
Sen. Susan Collins has emerged from the toughest re-election battle of her career more influential than ever, and ready to play a crucial deal-making role in a divided Senate.Anna Moneymaker/NYT

WASHINGTON — The calls began pouring in even before Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, bounded onto a makeshift stage in a snowy parking lot in Bangor to declare victory in a race she was supposed to have lost.

Republicans who had privately fretted about her demise offered hearty congratulations, professing to have always known she would survive. Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat from West Virginia, reached out wanting to know how soon he could get a meeting with his fellow moderate to begin breaking through the impasse on a coronavirus relief package. And President-elect Joe Biden made a brief call to congratulate a former Senate colleague and legislative ally whose vote he will badly need to push through his agenda and staff his administration.

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The ring kissing reflected the prime perch of Collins, who, after having survived the steepest reelection challenge of her career with a comfortable margin, has emerged more powerful than ever, poised for a fifth term in which her brand of bipartisan deal-making will be crucial.

The question is how Collins, who has long held sway as one of the few swing votes in a narrowly divided Senate, will use that power. She has drawn brutal criticism in the past from Democrats who say she courts compromise, only to ultimately side with the Republican Party line. Now, with Republicans bent on blocking any policy accomplishments by a Biden administration, Collins will be under immense pressure from both sides for her pivotal vote.

“We will be able to encourage the president not to be drawn to the far-left,” Collins said in an interview in Washington, calling her election and Biden’s an endorsement of divided government that vindicated her moderate approach.

“I think that’s a message the American people were sending — that they want more centrist politics pursued, and they don’t want to go to the far-left — so that too provides me with an opportunity,” Collins said.

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Collins, 67, has a strong relationship with Biden, who has called her “a woman of incredible character, integrity and grace.” And now she has the battle scars and enhanced credibility that come with having accomplished a feat many Republicans readily concede they never could have: win a resounding victory in a state that President Donald Trump lost. She has also surpassed a more enduring milestone, having now outlasted Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to represent Maine in the Senate, to become the longest-serving Republican woman in the chamber’s history.

“She’s the greatest that’s ever been,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the most conservative members of the Senate, declared in the aftermath, noticing Collins in conversation with a reporter in the Capitol. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, effectively declared her the queen of the Senate, posting on Instagram a depiction of Collins seated on a throne of skulls.

Her success in Maine, where she prevailed over the Democrat, Sara Gideon, despite polls showing her on track to lose, has vindicated Collins’ signature brand of New England moderation, cultivated over the last two decades. Come January, whether Biden oversees a divided government or a narrow Democratic hold on both chambers, she is positioned to play a crucial role in confirming administration nominations, approving spending agreements and negotiating legislative priorities like coronavirus relief or prescription drug legislation.

“My winning shows that a moderate can prevail in this highly polarized environment,” Collins said. “My victory in Maine shows that you can be an independent voice and take some breaths, do what you think is right, and the voters — in some states, at least — will reward you.”

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Collins said she was open to working with former political foes in order to achieve legislative accomplishments. But having survived a brutal campaign in which Democrats savaged her, Collins has reason to hold some grudges. She pointedly noted that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader, presented “a challenge” given “the millions of dollars in blatantly false ads he ran against me.”

Although the precise balance of the power in the Senate will remain unknown until two Georgia runoff races are decided in early January, Republicans are favored to win both seats, likely leaving Biden as the first Democratic president since Grover Cleveland in 1885 to take office without Democrats in control of both congressional chambers. A fraction of Republican support — likely, that of Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who faces reelection in 2022 — will be needed to advance both his legislative and political ambitions.

“It puts her in a very strong position to get things done in the Senate,” said Steve Abbott, her campaign manager and a longtime adviser. He described “a special self-confidence that comes” from “beating the odds” — one that, he added, “strengthens her to the core to do what she thinks is right.”

(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)

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In a signal of where the power could rest in the 117th Congress, Biden has yet to speak to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. But he made a point of calling Collins before his own victory was cemented. (Biden formally endorsed Gideon during the campaign but did not appear in person with her.)

“I know we come, technically, from political backgrounds that are different, but they’re not that different,” Biden said in a 2017 video filmed in honor of Collins receiving an Irish Heritage Center award. “We’ve become fast and good friends, and I look forward to you continuing to lead in the United States Senate, Susan.

“We Irish are the only ones who are nostalgic about the future,” Biden mused in the video, which the Collins campaign provided before the November election. “Well, I’m nostalgic about your future. A long way to go, and you’ve got a lot more to give.”

By no means will the Senate of 2021 resemble the courtly chamber where both Biden and Collins forged their respective careers. The civility that dominated back then has been left in tatters by partisan warfare over judicial confirmations and legislative obstruction. But the pair both steered their respective campaigns to victory based in part on their legislative prowess and the long-standing relationships they had built over decades in Washington.

Collins, who is in line to lead the powerful Appropriations Committee, ran a classic retail campaign, popping into business after business — sometimes purchasing a pair of earrings, or cans of food for a local food drive — and emphasizing the importance to Maine of her clout in the Senate.

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The argument resonated for many of the voters who flocked to her flurry of campaign stops across the state, including a woman who brought a Tupperware full of the senator’s favorite cookies to a Fourth of July parade in rural Jackman; the business owners and town leaders grateful for the federal dollars she had steered their way; and the Postal Service worker who thanked her for pushing for funding for the embattled mail delivery agency.

“There needs to be a balance,” said Liz Wisecup, a retired registered nurse who said she voted for both Biden and Collins. Without Collins, she added, she feared that “Maine will be lost forever” in the partisan shuffle.

Collins and her allies are quick to note that her gentility and penchant for deal-making has not wavered in more than two decades, even as liberal critics have grown scornful of what they say is a seemingly perpetual pattern of condemning the extreme elements of her own party but then siding with them on crucial votes. Her record also has plenty of notable moments of having defied the will of the Republican Party, including in declining to vote to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court the week before the election.

Having taken careful note of at least eight Democrats who have reached out and expressed interest in negotiating on big issues — Schumer was not among them, she noted — Collins has already begun to push for compromise.

In recent days, she has held court in the Senate basement, chastising the administration for denying Biden critical intelligence briefings and urging her colleagues to reconcile their differences on the pandemic aid measure and a funding package for the entire government.

“We work so well together,” Manchin said of Collins. “We look at the issues, and we look at the problems, and how we might fix them. I just can’t see losing good people like that just because they have a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ by their name.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.