WASHINGTON — She is alone in a political class facing extinction on Capitol Hill. Yet, GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine personifies the moderation that national Republicans increasingly say is necessary for the party’s survival.
“Of course I would like to see more Republicans from not only New England but from the entire Northeast, where we have a tradition of being an inclusive party,” Collins, 60, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I do not think it is healthy for the Republican Party to be a regional party.”
On that, national Republicans agree. The Republican National Committee, still smarting from its 2012 election losses and failure to win control of the Senate, issued a 100-page report last month calling for more inclusive tones on immigration and gay rights to help broaden the party’s appeal.
Generations of New England Republicans have favored moderation on social issues. But in recent years, Republicans in the region’s congressional delegation have dwindled to just two among 33 elected officials in six states: Collins and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Of the pair, only Collins is up for re-election in 2014.
“In New England, a moderate Republican would be traditionally fiscally conservative and socially moderate to liberal. The party hasn’t tolerated that in the last few years,” said former Sen. Olympia Snowe, a veteran Republican who, with Collins, was a force for moderation in Republican ranks for 15 years.
“They don’t tolerate dissent within the party,” Snowe, who retired out of frustration last year, said in an interview with the AP. “That’s why they find themselves in trouble.”
As the Grand Old Party shifted right in recent years, Collins walked a delicate balance on explosive issues while her colleagues lost, retired or left the party altogether.
She calls herself “a champion” on equal rights for gays and lesbians but doesn’t openly support gay marriage. She favors changes to the nation’s immigration system but so far declines to endorse a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who live in the country illegally. And she wants to crack down on illegal gun trafficking, but warns that universal background checks might impose unnecessary burdens on some gun owners.
She also praises President Barack Obama’s recent bipartisan outreach efforts, which included a phone call with Collins and a Senate Republican luncheon she hosted.
“I think he definitely helped himself,” Collins said of the president, adding later, “I think my party needs to meet him halfway.”
Her nuanced positions attract critics on the right and the left, but recent polling indicates that Collins is popular among Maine voters in both parties. Democrats in Washington quietly acknowledge she is in a commanding position to win re-election. On the ground in Maine, Democrats suggest that an unexpected announcement of retirement by Collins would offer their best chance of winning her seat.
“We’re committed to running a strong Democratic candidate that can win this seat and turn Maine completely blue,” state party spokesman Lizzy Reinholt said. “But the real question up in the air right now is whether Susan Collins runs for re-election.”
Collins told the AP that only a family catastrophe would prevent her from seeking a fourth term.
Her willingness to work with Democrats at times has drawn criticism from the tea party, but Maine conservative activists have yet to rally behind a credible alternative. It was a similar struggle for conservatives unhappy with Snowe, another moderate Republican, before she abruptly announced her retirement last year.
“People on the right in the party are not happy with some of (Collins’) votes,” Maine Republican National Committeeman Mark Willis said. “But I don’t think there’s anything out there that would indicate that there’s one or more people that would primary her.”
There is little fear that Collins would lose to a Democrat, given her popularity with that party. Perhaps that’s why most of the state’s top Democrats are eyeing the 2014 gubernatorial election instead of the Senate.
The state’s freshman senator, Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Senate Democrats, said it was too early to decide whether he might endorse Collins in 2014, but he did not rule it out.
“Sen. Collins is incredibly diligent and a ferocious advocate on behalf of her constituents,” King told the AP. “My experience with Maine politics is if you work hard, even if people disagree with you, they will generally support you.”
Polling suggests that Democrats are generally pleased with Collins’ job performance, although her policies are not always exactly in line with Democratic priorities.
In a recent interview in her Washington office, Collins refused to say whether she personally supports gay marriage. She listed one of her “proudest legislative accomplishments” as co-authoring the bill to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. A framed copy of a New York Times issue marking the accomplishment hangs behind her desk.
“I think it’s evident that I have been a champion in the Senate on equality and equal rights for gays and lesbians,” she said when pressed on her personal views on same-sex marriage.
“I’ve always felt that domestic relations, including marriage, should be dealt with at the state level,” she continued. “My philosophy has been to stay out of state issues.”
Collins strikes another delicate balance on gun control. She introduced legislation in March defining gun trafficking as a federal crime and cracking down on “straw purchases” in which lawful gun buyers provide firearms to those who can’t buy them legally. But she is reluctant to embrace the president’s call for universal background checks.
“This isn’t as easy to figure out as it sounds when people call for universal or better background checks. There are a lot of details to work out to make sure that the law doesn’t impose a burden that doesn’t improve our safety,” she said. “But do I think we can and should do better in that area? Yes.”
She is among more than a dozen senators targeted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s advertising campaign pushing senators to support expanded background checks. She recently issued a statement declaring that the effort does not have “any influence over my decisions.”
Meanwhile, Collins notes that a recent Democratic poll gave her one of the highest approval ratings for a senator in the nation. And she’s not done looking for compromise. She is expected to be among a group of Republican lawmakers to have another private dinner with the president next week.
“He said he would be in touch,” Collins said of Obama.