Democrat Doug Jones won the Senate election in Alabama last week, but Maine Senator Susan Collins saw her own victory of sorts, as the win all but guarantees her a greater position of power in Washington.
When Jones is sworn into the Senate in the coming weeks, the partisan split will shrink to just one seat — with 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, or those who align with that party.
Collins is seen as the most moderate Republican in the chamber and is often at odds with her party on high-profile bills. Rarely is there a guarantee that she will vote along party lines.
That reality was manageable when the GOP had an additional seat as a cushion. Without it, the question of Collins’s willingness to support any given bill will become one of the most important in Washington.
That, in turn, elevates Collins’s power on Capitol Hill. Call it her “House of Cards” moment. Everyone will be vying for her affections. The matter of her allegiances will become a permanent parlor game.
That’s if she stays with the Republican party. There has been much speculation that Collins could switch her affiliation to independent and choose to caucus with the Democrats. That might sound crazy, but it’s not, if she begins to feel too alienated by the Trump wing of the party.
And there’s always the possibility that Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer finds a way to broker a deal to force the issue, prompting a 50-50 power split in the Senate.
How ripe is Maine’s senior senator for a change in affiliation?
Collins has been involved in Republican politics since she graduated from college and began working for Senator Bill Cohen of Maine in the 1970s. Republican politics are deeply part of her identity.
But times have changed. The Republican Party has changed. She has big policy differences with party leaders on health care, tax cuts, and entitlement reform. Back home, she has been criticized by the GOP base and by Governor Paul LePage, a Republican, as being a Republican In Name Only.
And though she promised she would always vote for the Republican nominee for president — even if it was Donald Trump — she ultimately changed her mind.
When Collins very publicly explored a run for governor this year, it further exposed some of the raw feelings many Republicans have toward her. Normally, if a four-term sitting US senator were to decide she wanted to run for governor, it would clear out all primary challengers. In this case, not only did several Republicans jump into the race without deference to Collins, they went on to openly criticize her.
While those close to Collins said polling showed she would win a Republican primary, some wondered whether that was a given. A term-limited LePage suggested that the only way Collins could become governor is if she ran as an independent. He might have been on to something.
If Collins were to become an independent aligned with Democrats, she might actually strengthen her standing. In the short term, her move might come ahead of Democrats taking over the Senate in the midterm elections, thus stripping Republicans like her of committee chairmanships.
In the long term, such a move might ensure her reelection in Maine. She is not up for reelection until 2020, but there is a decent chance she could face a primary challenge from a more conservative candidate.
Should Collins become an independent, she wouldn’t have to face that challenge. As the state’s most popular politician, she would probably go on to be favored in the general election. And don’t expect the third-party label to be a hindrance. Remember, Maine’s other senator, Angus King, is an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
So what could Schumer offer an independent Collins in the Senate? Currently, Collins chairs both the Homeland Security Committee and the Aging Committee. There are bigger committees to run, and she would no doubt be interested.
A more powerful chairmanship is what sealed the deal the only other time a party affiliation switch has happened in this manner.
Out of the blue in 2001, Senator Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, switched to independent status and caucused with Democrats, receiving a more powerful committee chairmanship as a result. Similar to the current climate, Jeffords made his switch just as the Senate was taking up a big tax bill, his decision recalibrating the power balance to a 50-50 tie and requiring the Republican vice president to cast a tie-breaking vote.
The result? Both parties were forced to work together in a power-sharing agreement, however awkward. That forced kind of bipartisanship is exactly what Collins might find most attractive, having long called for more cooperation and more civility on key bills.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.