Sen. Susan Collins was expecting to see dozens of protesters when she stepped out of a Bangor radio studio Wednesday, as they’d been there chanting “Town hall!” when she arrived, a call for her to hold an open public forum. What she may not have been expecting was that they’d be just standing silently, watching her as she and her aides walked the gantlet back to her car.

“The thinking was that we wanted to show what it’s like to walk by people who are silent, and I’d have to say it was eerie,” said Jeanne Curran of Bangor, one of the organizers of the protest outside Maine Public’s studio. “Mainers have wanted a town hall for her to listen to all of us en masse so she gets the feeling of how extensive our fear and our anger is.”

Like many other Republicans in Washington, Collins has been feeling the heat from opponents of President Trump while home for the February recess. From Salt Lake City to rural Arkansas, members of Congress have been confronted by angry, overflow crowds of constituents upset about the slow pace of investigations into the Russian influence in the 2016 election and Trump’s Cabinet picks, or fearful that they will lose their health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.

Collins hasn’t held town hall-style meetings since her first years in the Senate, preferring instead to schedule private meetings with constituents. She says she finds them more effective than a big open forum, as does her Senate colleague, Angus King.

“What happens is usually a few people dominate the discussion, and those who are more reserved or less comfortable with speaking in public don’t get to talk to the officeholder directly,” she said in a written statement. “I think that’s why Maine senators have had a tradition of meeting with groups of constituents or having staff meet with them rather than holding these huge town halls where very few people get to speak and the level of civility is not that high.”

Sen. Susan Collins says large town hall forums are less effective than private meetings with constituents.

‘SHE IS A LITTLE BIT OUT OF STEP’

Throughout the past week, protesters have targeted Collins in cities across Maine, including a pro-ACA demonstration in Biddeford, “open-air town halls” in Lewiston, Bangor and Portland, and the “silent protest” outside Maine Public.

“I’m sure you will also be doing other protests for all the other members of the delegation,” Collins said outside the radio station, just before closing her car’s door, a reference to the fact that independent King, Democratic 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin have not faced similar protests.

Protest organizers say there’s a reason for that. “All my protest activities are based on my principles of tolerance and inclusiveness, and to the extent a member of Congress does not adhere to those principles, I protest them,” said Tracy Jalbuena of Camden, who attended the Maine Public protest and co-founded Midcoast Indivisible, an anti-Trump resistance group. “At this point, Susan Collins is disregarding those principles the most.”

That’s true, says Bryan Duff, head of the political science department at the University of New England in Biddeford.

“They’re not pressuring Angus King and Chellie Pingree because they are doing what they want and Susan Collins is not and that’s the simplest thing,” he said. “Bruce Poliquin, he’s doing what everyone expects him to do and represents the most conservative part of the state. Collins is a statewide rep, and this is a state that went for Clinton and for Obama, so every time she votes with Trump she is a little bit out of step with the state.”

Unlike Poliquin, Collins said before the election that Trump was unsuited to be president, describing him in a Washington Post opinion column as a cruel, disrespectful and ill-informed figure who lacked “the temperament, self-discipline and judgment required to be president.”

A crowd participates in a demonstration supportive of the Affordable Care Act last week outside Sen. Susan Collins’ office in Biddeford. While in Maine during Congress’ February recess, Collins has faced protesters at “open-air town halls” in Lewiston, Bangor and Portland, as well as a “silent protest” outside Maine Public’s studios in Bangor. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

AMONG CONSTITUENTS, ‘SENSE OF ALARM’

In interviews and chants, and on the signs they carry, protesters frequently cite Collins’ strong and early support of the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as attorney general – who last week persuaded Trump to overturn an Obama administration executive order protecting transgender students – and her not trying to block education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos’ nomination from being let out of a Senate committee (though she voted against her in the full vote). Concern that the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, won’t be replaced with a comparable alternative and anxiety about the president’s behavior are also top concerns.

“To us on the ground, there is a sense of alarm that Trump is taking some really extreme positions and creating this chaos and diplomacy disasters and we don’t want our elected officials going along with this as if this is business as usual and politics as usual,” said April Humphrey, a co-founder of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, a group created on Facebook that’s been organizing many of the protests. “A town hall meeting or something like it would provide an opportunity for some real back-and-forth conversations with Collins, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

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Collins, like King, doesn’t hold town hall meetings, and Reps. Pingree and Poliquin only hold issue-specific meetings or, in Poliquin’s case, telephone call-in “town halls,” according to their respective spokespeople.

“What I have found works best, and this has been the tradition of Maine Senators – it goes back to George Mitchell, Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe, Angus King – is that it is more productive and more constructive to have meetings with constituents rather than assembling a large group in an auditorium where very few people get to actually speak,” Collins said in a written statement.

King spokesman Scott Ogden said the senator concurs: “Sen. King has found – as Sen. Collins has and as is in the tradition of former Maine Senators – that these one-on-one meetings are often the most effective way to hear and understand constituents’ thoughts because they allow everyone, and not just the loudest in the room, to express their views.”

REPUBLICAN LEAST LOYAL TO TRUMP

Collins’ office has been frustrated by the protesters’ assertion that she is unavailable to constituents, pointing out that she meets with thousands of them every year in scheduled meetings with groups small and large.

While in Maine last week for the congressional recess, Collins did 15 meetings and interviews, including the hourlong call-in interview at Maine Public and five local television interviews; meetings with six Maine Muslim-American leaders, a small group of Mount Desert Island residents, and a delegation of Maine family physicians; and a 40-minute meeting with eight members of Mainers for Accountable Leadership that was live-streamed on Facebook.

Despite the criticism from Trump opponents, Collins is the Senate Republican who has been the least loyal to the new president. As of Friday afternoon, 84.2 percent of Collins’ votes have been in accord with Trump’s and her party leadership’s wishes since Trump took office, according to a tracker set up by FiveThirtyEight, the data journalism outlet led by Nate Silver.

Forty-eight of her 51 Republican Senate colleagues have perfect 100 percent voting loyalty. (King had a 52.6 percent loyalty rating, making him the fourth most “Trump friendly” member of the Democratic caucus.)

“She’s voted against Trump more than any other Republican in the Senate, but it’s still not enough for people,” Duff observes. “But if you’re a critic of Trump, you get your hopes up, and she doesn’t always fulfill them.”