U.S. Sen. Angus King held what was, apparently, a civil and orderly “listening session” in Portland last week to hear feedback on President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the lack of anger that has been so evident at congressional town hall events of late doesn’t mean this is an easy issue. Indeed, the nomination of Gorsuch presents King with the toughest test of his political career.

In his selection of Gorsuch, Trump has chosen a brilliant, widely respected conservative jurist who is eminently qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. That sets Gorsuch apart from some of Trump’s other controversial nominees, who have been criticized by many as inexperienced or unprepared. It’s impossible to say that of Gorsuch, who’s been a federal judge for over a decade. In considering this nomination, King faces the question of whether to support a strong nominee despite their profound political disagreements.

King, after all, has made his career as a pragmatic centrist untethered by political parties and ideology. As governor during prosperous economic times, that was a fairly painless path to take: He could freely borrow ideas from the right and the left, bringing the two parties together in Augusta. But as one of 100 senators in a much more polarized time, it’s an entirely different story.

At first glance, it might seem as though King has little to lose regardless of how he votes on this particular issue. After all, he won his first term relatively painlessly based on his popularity as governor. However, he faces challenges unshared by any of his colleagues thanks to his status as an independent: the possibility of his vote on this issue animating a general-election opponent no matter which way he goes.

If you’re a Democrat from a state that Trump either won or narrowly lost, you might consider voting to confirm Gorsuch. If your vote on that one issue does anger the base enough to inspire a primary opponent, you can likely make the case that they can’t win a general election in your swing state. Moreover, if a primary starts looking competitive, Democratic leadership will swing into action to bail you out. Then, you have the time to pivot in the general election and argue that you’re bipartisan, while painting your Republican opponent as an extremist.

King won’t be able to make that pivot. He’ll likely face both a Democrat and a Republican in the general election, just as he did in 2012. As much as they might like to, national Democrats – though they may well abandon the candidate – can’t stop someone from claiming their party’s nomination. If they’re smart, that candidate could make a compelling case against King, animating the liberal base that is incensed by Trump. Voting for Gorsuch could be just the spark that the grassroots progressives needs to turn on King.

But King can’t afford to simply ignore Trump supporters. Even if the vast majority of those who attended his recent listening session were against Gorsuch, that’s hardly a shock at an event held at USM in Portland. If King holds more events on this topic around the state, he’ll likely find a very different crowd with different views on the nomination. That’s no surprise, of course; not only is Gorsuch’s nomination unifying for conservatives across the state, Trump also got more votes in Maine than any Republican presidential candidate since 1988.

Of course, King – along with his Democratic colleagues in even more conservative states – does have a third option; even a nomination isn’t a simple decision. He could oppose a filibuster of Gorsuch’s nomination – avoiding hypocrisy and affirming their stance that Merrick Garland deserved an up-or-down vote – but vote against his confirmation in the end. That could be the option that wins out for King, as it preserves his principles, but it may be threading the needle a bit too finely for liberals to tolerate, while simultaneously angering conservatives.

If King is really independent, he should follow the lead of Sen. Susan Collins, who tends to only vote against nominees that she considers unqualified. This has often drawn her the ire of both sides, as she’s voted to confirm conservative and liberal jurists to the Supreme Court, but it’s the right approach to take.

King should give Gorsuch full consideration on his own merits, putting aside the failed politics of the past, and urge his colleagues to do the same.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: jimfossel

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