As the clock ticks down on September, all eyes are on Maine Senator Susan Collins, whose swing vote on the latest attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in the coming days will have a major effect on whether the Republican legacy bill lives or dies.
But it’s another, lesser-known decision Collins is weighing that could actually be the biggest of her career: whether to run for governor.
In Washington, Republican leader Mitch McConnell has eight days in which to pass a version of the vote if he wants to do so by simple majority. When word broke Friday that Collins was leaning toward a no vote, social media lit up, even as Governor Paul LePage flew to Washington to put pressure on her.
Back in Maine, political observers are waiting with the same bated breath for Collins to announce whether she will run in next year’s open seat for governor replacing LePage, who is term limited. If she runs and wins, it could lead to the state’s biggest political shakeup in decades.
Collins has amped up the drama by drawing out the decision. She first said she would announce her decision by Labor Day and then by the end of September. On Thursday, a spokesman said the senator might take another week because of the health care vote and the funeral next week of a childhood friend. At this point, her final answer is anyone’s guess.
Interviews with more than a dozen Maine Republicans this week suggest that opinion is split about 50-50 on whether she’ll jump into the race. Notably, she has not touched base with the wide group of activists that often signals a candidate’s interest in testing the waters. At the same time, those closest to her say she wants to run but is still assessing both the political risks and the question of what role would allow her to do the most for Maine.
“For the life of me, I never understood why she would give herself that deadline or why she would even talk about it in the first place,” said Colby College government professor Sandy Maisel, a longtime observer of Maine state politics. “But it has made for a moment in Maine that is absolutely fascinating [along with] the national implications for how it would change the makeup of the Senate.”
As an established political moderate, Collins has a tricky decision on her hands. For years, she has been the most popular politician in Maine. But Republicans have grown increasingly frustrated with a number of her votes, particularly her decision this summer to vote against a previous version of the health care repeal bill. A poll last month found Collins would lose a Republican primary. It’s not as much of a high-risk proposition as it might seem. If she did lose, she’ll still have her Senate seat because she’s not up for reelection until 2020.
But then there’s the matter of why she would want to trade the trappings of a senior position in the US Senate for the less august surroundings of Augusta. She has long said she’s intrigued by the opportunity to have a more hands-on approach to serving Maine, with the chance to create jobs and improve education. She ran for governor once before, in 1994, finishing third behind independent Angus King and a Democratic candidate.
Yet as she weighs a second run 23 years later, she finds herself with dominant name recognition and fund-raising capacity but deep questions about whether her own party will even back her.
State party leaders have not held back in their public criticism, hinting that a GOP primary could be bruising, if not politically fatal. It would pit the moderate Collins wing against a more conservative faction, headed up by LePage. The two-term governor has repeatedly called out Collins for her health care vote, while Republican US Representative Bruce Poliquin told a conservative audience to pray for her and said the Senate’s inability to repeal the ACA was “shameful.”
“The Obamacare repeal vote and her decision to run for governor are very much related,” said Maine state Representative Ellie Espling, who also serves as the state’s Republican National Committeewoman. “She is very popular and respected, but there are a lot of concerns among Republicans over a number of her votes, [particularly] over the ones on health care.”
Should she run, Collins would enter a field that is already both large and a bit unruly. There are three Republicans who have either declared or say they plan to run, while eight Democrats are already in the race.
Collins would be the front-runner next November, but that is only if she can win the Republican nomination, which will be held in June — when turnout is likely to be low and driven by the conservative base. Her biggest primary challenge would come from LePage’s former health and human services commissioner, Mary Mayhew, who announced her candidacy earlier this summer.
In an interview this week, Mayhew said she had no plans to leave the race should Collins get in — and, in fact, she issued a warning.
“Her focus should be on repealing Obamacare,” Mayhew said before telegraphing what is sure to be a major campaign talking point, should she face Collins in a primary. “In Washington, in the world in which Senator Collins has been working for many years, they don’t have to balance their budget. But we do in Maine.”
A Public Policy Poll in August found Mayhew would beat Collins 44 percent to 33 percent in a hypothetical head-to-head primary matchup. But if others stay in the race — including the state’s House Republican leader Ken Fredette, another LePage ally — or jump in down the line, it would split the LePage voting bloc, thus carving an easier path for Collins. Indeed, state Senate majority leader Garrett Mason is set to officially join the race soon.
On the radio a month ago, LePage said it was “highly unlikely” Collins could win a GOP primary and floated the idea that she would have to run as an independent if she were to have a chance of being elected.
Collins has kept her decision-making process close to the vest. Since reporters first began asking about a potential run in February, her answer has remained the same: She was open to it but wanted to figure out what is the best for the residents of Maine. In recent weeks, she has been bogged down with the busy Senate schedule and has spent much of her time in Washington — though she spent Thursday and Friday in Maine. Meanwhile, her pollsters have been busy trying to gauge public interest.
The implications of a Collins departure from Washington would be huge. She is one of the few remaining moderates in the tightly divided Senate, making her votes that much more high profile. With 21 years in the Senate, she ranks 15th in seniority and chairs an appropriations subcommittee that enables her to protect the state’s major military shipyards. She is also the only Republican from New England in the country’s upper chamber.
Yet with Trump serving as president, she has found herself even more isolated, a moderate at odds with much of her own party.
If elected, Collins would be the state’s first female governor. And her election would set off one of the largest domino effects in decades, starting with the fact that she would hand pick her successor in the Senate. Were she to choose Poliquin — a close colleague before their recent dustup — that selection would trigger a special election to fill his Congressional seat. Suddenly, state senators and local mayors would be lining up with Washington stars in their eyes. This in a state where no incumbent US senator or member of Congress has lost a reelection bid since 1978.
“Running for governor comes with great risk. She is immensely popular. If she loses a primary, she is then a wounded senator and she knows it,” said Maisel, the Colby professor. “But besides the politics, this is a personal decision about what she wants to do, where she wants to live, and what she wants her legacy to be.”James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.