By Marie Tessier
Friday, October 17, 2008
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican abortion rights supporter, is bucking an election trend against moderate, pro-choice GOP politicians, whose ranks are thinning. But as a female Republican in D.C. she's becoming more of a rarity.
BANGOR, Maine (WOMENSENEWS)--Maine's U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican, faces unfavorable political trends both nationally and in this northeastern coastal state.
Democrats are widely expected to gain seats in both houses of the U.S. Congress. And Maine, after backing a Democratic presidential candidate in the past four elections, is expected to do so again this November. In addition, the number of women running as major party candidates for the Senate this year is down to seven, compared to 12 in 2006.
Then there are the problems moderate women have been having in the GOP.
"Women have historically populated the moderate wing of the Republican Party, and they have kind of been losing their place," says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick. "Moderate women are having trouble winning in the primaries and Republicans lately have been losing ground in general elections."
But Collins is bucking all those trends as she leads U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, a Portland Democrat who is also a strong supporter of abortion rights and women's rights. A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted Oct. 2 showed Collins ahead 53 to 43 percent, with a margin of error of 4.5 percent. She led by 13 points in Rasmussen's previous poll in September.
A September poll conducted for the Bangor Daily News and WCSH-TV showed Collins leading Allen 55 to 39 percent, with leads among men and women, and among independents. The poll had a margin of error of 3.8 percent, according to pollster SurveyUSA in Verona, N.J.
"Moderate Republicans are an endangered species," says Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report, a leading nonpartisan newsletter and Web site in Washington, D.C. "Democrats had an opportunity to target some seats in 2008, but the challenge in Maine was to get voters to do a 180 on Collins. It doesn't look like that's happening so far."
A key Democratic tactic this year has been to draw comparisons between Collins and President George W. Bush, whose approval ratings are dismal. Photos of the two together are in the front windows of Democratic campaign offices throughout the state. Collins, in turn, emphasizes her areas of independence.
Collins did not to appear Thursday at a campaign rally in Bangor with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate. Instead, Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who is not standing for re-election this year, introduced Palin.
"The real question in the Senate race is whether people are going to be splitting their ticket, or whether the Democrats can succeed in making it a referendum on Republicans," says Amy Fried, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono.
Collins' Senate votes have created a zigzagging record during her 12 years in office.
Collins, 55 and Catholic, is one of just nine candidates for Congress this year supported by the WISH List, a political action committee for Republican women who support abortion rights. Its acronym stands for Women in the Senate and the House. By contrast, EMILY's List (Early Money Is Like Yeast), the Democratic PAC for women who support abortion rights, is supporting 29 candidates.
Aside from Collins, the Washington-based WISH List is also supporting five pro-choice incumbents in the House of Representatives: Judy Biggert of Illinois, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Mary Bono Mack of California, Ginny Brown-Waite of Florida and Kay Granger of Texas.
The PAC is also supporting Lynn Jenkins, the Kansas state treasurer who defeated a far-right opponent in the GOP primary for a traditionally Republican second congressional district; Joyce Stoer Cordi in California; and Marina Kats in Pennsylvania.
During the Clinton administration, Collins infuriated many in her party by voting to acquit the president following impeachment hearings and by voting to protect reproductive rights during a crucial Senate vote to outlaw an abortion procedure used after the 12th week of pregnancy.
She also has a moderate record on environmental issues. The League of Conservation Voters rated her as 100 percent supportive in 2007, and 71 percent in 2006, according to VoteSmart.org, a nonpartisan voter education site. She told VoteSmart that she supports development of both renewable and nuclear energy, provided appropriate safety measures are taken for nuclear waste, and does not support ethanol subsidies.
While she supported the invasion of Iraq, Collins voted with Democrats and only one other Republican in 2007 to oppose the troop "surge."
The American Conservative Union gives her a rating of 36 out of 100 in 2007. It's the lowest score of any Senate Republican except Maine's other senator, Olympia Snowe, who has a 28. Like Collins, Snowe also supports abortion rights.
Collins earns some favorable conservative points by supporting President George W. Bush's tax policies and all his cabinet picks, including former attorneys general John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez. She voted to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
As a member of a family that has owned for five generations a local lumber yard, she has been a leading national opponent of the estate tax.
The defeat of two other moderate New England Republicans in 2006 renewed Democrats' hopes of defeating Collins during her 2008 re-election campaign. That year, Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee and Connecticut U.S. Rep. Nancy Lee Johnson both lost to Democrats.
In 1996 Collins was elected to an open seat following the retirement of Republican U.S. Sen. William S. Cohen, who then became defense secretary in the Clinton administration. That year, Collins beat a former congressman and governor, Joseph Brennan, 49 percent to 44 percent. In her 2002 re-election bid, she defeated Democrat Rochelle "Chellie" Pingree by a lopsided margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.
Pingree, a progressive who became nationally prominent as a health care reformer, went on to serve as the national president of Common Cause in Washington, D.C. She is now heavily favored to win Allen's seat in Maine's traditionally Democratic 1st Congressional District, according to the Cook Political Report and Congressional Quarterly.
Though the defeats of other New England moderates in recent years demonstrate the pitfalls of playing right and left voters against the middle of the road, Collins' approach has won her strong approval among Maine voters, who have a bipartisan track record.
While hosting two Republican senators, the state has supported Democrats for president since 1992. This year, Democrat Barack Obama has a strong lead over Republican John McCain in statewide presidential polling.
The McCain campaign says it is stepping up efforts in the northern part of the state in hopes of winning a single electoral vote under the state's split-vote Electoral College system. In Maine, the statewide presidential vote winner gets two electoral votes, and one vote goes to the winner in each of the state's two congressional districts. On the same day that Palin appeared in Bangor, news outlets reported that the Republican National Committee was pulling its advertising from the state.
Marie Tessier is an independent journalist who writes frequently about violence against women, legal affairs and public policy.
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