Susan Collins, A Uniquely Bad Senator, Turns to the Dark Money

Politics Features Susan Collins
Susan Collins, A Uniquely Bad Senator, Turns to the Dark Money

There are undoubtedly perks associated with growing up in Maine, but one of the sad truths is that at age 13, I was forced—along with the rest of my high school—to listen to Susan Collins.

It was fall 2006, and Senator Collins spoke in our high school’s auditorium, which I note—to provide a sense of scale—doubled as our cafeteria. Collins has never been an engaging speaker, and this day was no exception; a Daily Kos post from around then suggests she discussed “ethics in public office.” I wonder whether she believed this would genuinely engage a crowd of sleep-deprived teenagers on a Tuesday morning; I doubt she cared. For Collins, bland has always played fine. Two years after that speech, she’d earn a third Senate term with more than sixty-one percent of the vote—in a state that was simultaneously lumbering to the polls for Barack Obama—and in 2014, she cruised to a fourth term with a whopping sixty-eight percent.

During her twenty-plus years in the Senate, Collins has built a career and a constituency solely through dogged tepidness, by painstakingly considering cocking an eyebrow at all the proper moments. Benefitting from favorable comparisons back home—most notably to Paul LePage, who from 2010 until 2018 had been uncorking both racist dogwhistles and diatribes from within the governor’s mansion—and in Washington, where Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism had cemented itself, for a while Collins seemed different. Moderate, even competent. A veritable Aisle-Crosser. And as many sad liberals hoped in vain as the 45th president took over, a staunch member of the #resistance.

She wasn’t. Collins’ approval numbers faded throughout 2017, as she proved to only really break with the president and her party when she knew Republicans would still get what they want (as her flip-flop on Betsy DeVos’ confirmation made clear). The major blow to her perception came the following fall, as names like Tobin and Squee rose to unprecedented notoriety. Once it became clear that Republicans actually needed her to confirm Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, she—after a forty-three-minute speech detailing her hesitations—fell in line. Mainstream Democratic supporters, finally realizing their clothed-sheep friend had long been a wolf, began organizing fundraisers to run her out of Washington in 2020, and Collins’ disapproval ranking ballooned to the second-highest in the Senate, just behind McConnell’s.

Now, thirteen months from election day, a few questions arise: Will Collins run in 2020? And who wants her to?

The native of Caribou—a scant twenty minutes from the Canadian border—has officially stated no plans of running. Yet the Collins tea leaves are never too difficult to read. After the Supreme Court vote, Collins has shamelessly tried to reinstate her “have-you-no-shame-sir” bonafides to appeal to Maine’s moderate (and fairly-purple) electorate, only voting with Trump one-third of the time in the new Congressional session.

More crucially, she’s getting that green. On July 8, she designated “Collins For Senator” as her principal campaign committee for the 2020 election, and the dark money has begun to roll in: In August, the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel uncovered that Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society executive vice president who’s known as Trump’s “judge whisperer,” had bought a mansion on Mount Desert Island, where he hosted a fundraiser for Collins. (Leo himself donated the personal maximum for the primary—$2,800—to the Collins For Senator fund in June.)

While the official declaration of her candidacy is yet to come, the funding scene suggests that Collins is gearing up for a fight. During her last reelection campaign, her campaign committee raised just under $5.3 million from January 2013 to December 2014; from Jan. 1, 2013, through June 30 of that year, it had raised just under $720,000. During the same timeframe in 2019, though, it tallied more than $3.5 million.

What’s most interesting, though, are the people donating to Collins who really haven’t before. Leo’s donation in this past cycle was his first ever to the Maine Senator, and a number of other conservative bigwigs are making it clear that she now has their backing, including:

Sheldon Adelson, CEO of Las Vegas Sands; donated the maximum of $5,600* (as did his wife, Miriam)
Jimmy Haslam, owner of the Cleveland Browns; $5,600
Jerry Reinsdorf, owner and chairman of the Chicago Bulls; $5,600 (as did his wife, Martyl; son Michael also donated $5,000)
Charles R. Schwab, CEO of Charles Schwab; $5,600
Bud Selig, former commissioner of Major League Baseball; $5,600
—And finally, this doesn’t really matter but I found it interesting: Jeff Bezos’ parents, Miguel and Jacklyn, who each donated $5,600

*$5,600 is the maximum donation, as an individual can donate $2,800 to the primary campaign and $2,800 to the general campaign.

It’s worth emphasizing that these donations haven’t really been there in previous cycles for Collins, and certainly not with this consistency:

historical donor chart screenshot.png

It probably goes without saying that these big donors are not Mainers. In Collins’ principal campaign fund, nearly two-thirds of her donations are in the biggest category (“$2,000 and over”), and contributions from Maine citizens account for less than three percent of her overall haul.

More damning is the situation when eyeing the other PACs Collins has authorized to “receive and expend funds” during her candidacy. In sum, these four committees have donated north of $450,000 to Collins campaign (as detailed below), but not a single dollar donated to those committees has come from Maine citizens. (The links below show how much each committee has raised and allows one to filter by state.)

Collins Victory Committee: $213,154.09 donated to Collins (Please note, among these line items, sizable donations from New Balance owners Jim and Anne Davis and a sad, solitary $1,000 from JEB
Collins-Graham Majority Committee: $126,285.20
GOP Winning Women: $109,943.43 (Beyond their direct donations to Collins, Leo and Schwab also donated here)
Americans United for Freedom – $1902.44

Let’s not pretend this article is disclosing some secret of campaign finance: It’s well-worn knowledge that (Bernie aside) campaign funding mostly comes from big-ticket donors, and besides, this data is literally public information.

But this deep-dive does lay bare a few truths of Collins’ new situation. First, these national donors are recognizing that the Senator is vulnerable in a way she hasn’t been previously. Whatever local fandom she had inexplicably engendered previously is dissipating in favor of outside investment. In every single of Collins’ prior two-year election cycles, individual contributions from Maine more than tripled the efforts of any other state; so far in 2019, Missourians have thus far donated more to Collins than Mainers.

While this is unprecedented territory by her own standards, she’s also an outlier among her Congressional peers. Republican senators up for reelection in the same 2020 cycle uniformly have much stronger backing locally: Over the same period in 2019, Texas’s John Cornyn, North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, and Iowa’s Joni Ernst have all received the most financial support from the state they represent. Perhaps Collins’ numbers are depressed as she is still, purportedly, undecided about the 2020 election. But with no other Republican candidates having declared, it’s hard to believe that those in the 207—here is where you learn that the entire state of Maine has a single area code—are keeping their purse strings tied simply until the probable becomes official.

Clearly, Collins’ native support has waned, and while she’s still the favorite in the election—if only because her finances currently outgun those of the closest Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, by about 6-to-1—dollar bills can’t go to the polls. The next quarterly financing report for candidates comes out October 15; the situation will be clearer then. It very well could be rosier for Collins.

Regardless, come early November 2020, the long-time senator will almost certainly be delivering some kind of speech. For the first time in a long time, Mainers have reason to hope it will be the last one of hers they’ll ever have to hear.

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