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With Brett Kavanaugh vote, Susan Collins is in middle of a firestorm

Senator Susan Collins of Maine met with Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh at her office last month.Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press/file

During her decades in the Senate, Susan Collins has had her share of highly scrutinized votes: Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the war in Iraq, the Affordable Care Act, massive tax cuts, and the confirmations of more than 500 federal judges.

But none has produced more volume and vitriol than the Maine Republican’s vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Collins’s office has received 3,000 clothes hangers — mostly via Amazon — in an apparent reference to Kavanaugh’s potentially decisive role in overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade case that made abortion legal nationwide. One caller wished rape on a junior staffer, and late last week, Collins’s office received a 3-foot-long phallic cardboard cutout labeled with an expletive.


Liberal activists have crowdfunded more than $1 million to boost a Democratic challenger against Collins in 2020 if she supports the Supreme Court nominee. And, from the right, voice mails have flooded Collins’s office with accusations she is not loyal to the Republican president and that she would face a primary challenge if she votes against Kavanaugh.

“In all my years of public service, I’ve never seen a debate as ugly as this one,’’ Collins said in a statement. “These attempts to pressure me are not going to be a factor in my decision.’’

Now as Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, are scheduled to testify Monday, the nomination and potentially Collins’s decision have never been more in the spotlight.

On Tuesday, Collins added to the debate by recommending to the Senate Judiciary Committee that attorneys for Kavanaugh and Ford be allowed to question.

“That Judge Kavanaugh’s attorney would question Professor Ford and Professor Ford’s attorney would question Judge Kavanaugh — I believe that would elicit the most information,” said Collins, who added, in response to a reporter’s question, that it was “puzzling” Ford had not yet responded to the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Tuesday night, Ford’s lawyers told the Judiciary Committee that the FBI should first investigate the alleged incident, before the committee would hear her testimony.

In Maine, Collins’s decision is driving the political conversation in a state that is otherwise playing host to hotly contested races for governor and Congress. On Monday, the four biggest papers in the state ran front-page stories on Collins. A Kantar Media analysis from July 9 to Sept. 7 showed 1,924 television ads aired in Maine pressing Collins on the Supreme Court vote from either side.

“We are talking about a vote that will have a huge impact for the next 30 years. This one is different. And I think she understands that,” said Senator Angus King, an independent in Maine who aligns with Democrats, in an interview last week at a town hall in the coastal town of Kennebunkport.

Collins, in an e-mail sent by staff, detailed the process of how she has been preparing for her vote on Kavanaugh.

“I have spent more time interviewing him and reviewing his record than I have any of the previous Court nominees that I have been called upon to consider and, I would note, more time talking with him one-on-one than any other Senator,” said Collins in a statement. “I have had literally 19 attorneys advising me on Judge Kavanaugh’s opinions, law review articles, and speeches, many of which I have also read personally of course.”


It remains unclear when Collins will announce her decision, but Republicans hope to have Kavanaugh on the court when it begins its next session on Oct. 1. And at least some local residents expressed impatience.

“I don’t know what else she needs to know about Kavanaugh,” said Claudette Midgley, 77, a Democrat-leaning independent from Kennebunk who has voted for Collins and opposes Kavanaugh.

Collins is one of a handful of key votes on Kavanaugh in the Senate, where Republicans have a slim two-seat majority. That means that whenever there is a close vote, attention turns to her and other moderate Republicans. But in the end, she has often voted with the GOP — including, for example, to approve Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and to pass President Trump’s tax cut package.

Like Collins, Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, supports abortion rights and says she is undecided on the nominee. Three Democrats — Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — are undecided and face reelection in states that Trump won in 2016.

Some Senate observers say that among those five, however, Collins’s vote could be the most important. In the past, the three Democrats have held off on announcing their positions until Collins has made hers known.

King said he thinks the pressure campaign — especially from those in opposition to Kavanaugh — is beginning to backfire.


“She doesn’t want to be seen as having succumbed to pressure. She wants to do this her own way,” King said. “But if anyone can influence her decision, it is those she represents.”

In rural Dayton, a town of fewer than 2,000 in southern Maine that gave Collins 76 percent of the vote in her last race, residents are divided. Collins, who had a 56 percent approval rating in a recent Morning Consult survey, has built a reputation as a thoughtful moderate since her election to the Senate in 1996.

“This is Republican town and everyone loves [Collins]. I just wish she would stop voting like a Democrat,” said Dixie Harris, who helps run the Harris Farm, in an interview last week. “Kavanaugh should be in, and this is a circus. I hope Collins votes the right way, but I wouldn’t say she loses my vote if she doesn’t.”

Harold Keene, a 74-year-old retiree who worked at a baked bean plant in Portland, says he has voted for Collins every time she appears on the ballot. But that could change if she votes with Republicans to confirm Kavanaugh, he said.

“I am personally pro-life, but I don’t think she should vote for someone who will take away abortion access for women,” said Keene, an independent who largely votes for Republicans.

Maine Governor Paul LePage, who has never held back from sparring with Collins, has so far kept his distance on lobbying the senator but, in a statement, noted her pivotal role.


“There is a saying, ‘As Maine goes, so goes the nation.’ Maine’s senior Senator Susan Collins embodies that saying,” LePage said.

Jess Bidgood of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.