If you’re traveling these days, and people discover that you’re from Maine, don’t be surprised if they want to talk about Susan Collins and Angus King. As I found in my recent trips, they’ll most likely want to express their gratitude to the people of Maine for electing two of the country’s most thoughtful senators to Congress.

Maine has long had a reputation for sending people of distinction and intelligence to Washington. Now that reputation has been rekindled. And it couldn’t come at a better time for the country, given that Washington looks increasingly like a place where the inmates have overtaken the asylum.

Both of our senators earned the respect of many in recent weeks as they stood up against partisan-fueled attempts to throw millions of Americans off their health care and drive up rates for everyone else. But Collins’ vote was far more difficult and courageous, as a devoted Republican. It was also, without a doubt, her “Margaret Chase Smith” moment of courage in the face of partisan madness. And it may not be her last.

Sen. Collins is at the height of her influence and power in Washington. It is a power that can grow even further if she continues to lead an emerging bloc of moderate senators, from both parties, who are working together to fix the nation’s health care system.

With Congress so closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, a small, bipartisan group of moderates can become a bridge between the parties, put a stop to reckless ideas and promote new, common-sense solutions to the country’s problems. Nobody is better prepared to lead such a group than Collins.

Over the next month or so, Collins will confront one of the most difficult decisions of her career, as she ponders whether to stay in the Senate or run for governor. In the Senate, she has a growing opportunity to help Maine and the nation. She may even become, in the foreseeable future, chair of one of the Senate’s more powerful committees.

Running for governor will bring her closer to home, and to the state that she obviously loves. But that path is fraught with peril. Gov. LePage and other Donald Trump supporters in Maine have promised to work to defeat her in a Republican primary, no doubt with the president’s enthusiastic support. Those are not idle threats. One recent poll shows that while Collins enjoys broad public support, she has only 33 percent support among Republican primary voters.

In a run for governor, Collins’ problem isn’t winning in the fall election – it’s surviving the Republican primary.

This is not the Republican Party that Collins grew up with and has supported all these years. It is not the party of Margaret Chase Smith, Bill Cohen or Olympia Snowe. Instead, it has become a party dominated by conservatives who despise government and distrust nearly everyone connected to it – a party that values anger over results and opinions over facts.

The Republican Party in Maine has become, for this moment in time at least, the party of the tea party, Paul LePage and Donald Trump.

As Collins considers her choices, she might want to take a hard look at the habits and trend lines of the two parties, over the last few decades. Both suffer from shrinking primaries dominated by small groups of uncompromising activists and special interests. And both have created a gantlet for rising candidates that has the effect of winnowing out those who do not conform.

But that’s where the similarities end. The narrowing of the Republican Party has consistently produced candidates who are outsiders, fueled by distrust of and hostility to anyone who disagrees with them. Think LePage, 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Trump.

Democratic primaries, on the other hand, have produced candidates who are longtime insiders and prominent figures in the party, such as Joe Brennan, John Baldacci, Libby Mitchell, Mike Michaud and, most recently, Hillary Clinton. There’s another difference: Republicans have won with their candidates, and, in more cases than not, Democrats haven’t.

Those trend lines make a primary run for governor a dangerous road for Collins, despite her general popularity.

If Susan Collins decides to stay in the Senate, she will have an enormous opportunity to lead and to be of great benefit to the people of Maine and the nation. If she still wants to run for governor, she should give long and serious consideration to following the path that Angus King has blazed, and run as an independent.

If she does that, she won’t be leaving the Republican Party. It has already left her.

Alan Caron is the owner of Caron Communications and the author of “Maine’s Next Economy” and “Reinventing Maine Government.” He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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