Saturday, July 29, 2017

What Would It Take for Susan Collins to Switch Parties?

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME)
As a general rule, I try to avoid clickbait articles (loyal readers might note, "lately you just avoid writing articles," but well, you run my life and see if you can do better).  As a rule, I think they're kind of mean, and sort of feed into the "Fake News" aspect of the internet right now that is so en vogue in being mocked, but isn't entirely untrue.  But there has been something on my mind lately that I've wanted to discuss the logistics of on the blog, and considering the actions of the past week, I think might not be the worst idea to discuss now, and that is this: would a US Senator, specifically Susan Collins, ever consider switching parties in the new era of Trump?

I want to note, first and foremost, that this isn't some sort of insider information-it is speculation, and a bit of research into why senators typically switch parties; I don't personally know if this is a thought that has crossed Collins' mind in the past seven months since her party took over total control of Washington.  But I doubt she hasn't at least considered at some point.  After all, Susan Collins is in a unique position where a party switch might not hurt here in the slightest in her home state, and perhaps even could help her in the long run.

You might be wondering why I picked Collins specifically, and not, say, Joe Manchin or Lisa Murkowski.  Manchin, I think, will stay Democratic because he has already and in 2018 it'd be difficult for him to A) make it out of a primary against Republicans who consider people like Thad Cochran or Orrin Hatch to be too conservative and B) 2018, on-paper, seems like it would be a good year for the Democrats as midterms are usually strong for the party out-of-power, particularly when the president is unpopular.  Murkowski, on the other hand, may have some moderate streaks when it comes to education and healthcare, but is very conservative on other issues like the environment.  Plus, she's from a ruby red state that even when they have a Democrat they like (Mark Begich) they throw them out of office.  It makes more sense for her to continue to be an independent for the time being, knowing that she's personally popular enough in her home state (and has beaten primary challengers twice now) to weather pretty much any storms.

Collins, however, is a different case all-together.  She's one of only three incumbent Republican senators from a state that Hillary Clinton won (the other two being Dean Heller and Cory Gardner, both pretty reliable conservatives on most issues).  As a result, the votes are there for a Democrat to successfully win the state, and indeed her fellow senator is an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats (Angus King).  She's insanely popular in the state, to the point where she's able to defy Democrats in good years like beating Rep. Tom Allen in 2008-she regularly grabs crossover votes, and it's not hard to see that she could do it the opposite way.  Plus, she wouldn't run into a situation where she'd easily be primaried from the left here-she seems to be the sort of politician who just wins, period, a rarity in today's political world.  And perhaps just as importantly (though not entirely-politicians who make it as high in the world of politics as Collins first think of reelection), she's pretty moderate on a host of issues.

Just look at the evidence.  She's pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and is against Trump's travel ban.  She supports campaign finance law reform, and supports trade in Cuba.  She opposed Mitch McConnell's actions on Merrick Garland, and is relatively moderate on education issues, voting against Betsy DeVos' confirmation and has offered multiple bills through the years to help teachers.  She voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the only Republican left in Congress to do so).  She is far to the left of even some Democrats on environmental issues on a range of topics from recently killing a bill to drill on public lands, supporting the CLEAR Act, and voting against the confirmation of Scott Pruitt.  And of course this past week she joined Sens. John McCain and Lisa Murkowski in killing the "skinny repeal" bill of the Affordable Care Act.  Hell, she didn't even vote for Donald Trump, and has been caught on tape insinuating that she's worried about Trump's capacity as president.

Admittedly this feels like cherry-picking in a way as there are issues (specifically economic ones) that Collins is a conservative on, but her voting record would hardly be out of place in the Democratic Party and on many issues she'd vote with the party more reliably than Joe Manchin or Heidi Heitkamp (her most recent ACU score is actually lower than Manchin's).  But the question is more why would she switch?  She's currently sought after on every major piece of legislation-I wouldn't doubt that she's the first phone call Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer makes when a major issue is brought to the Senate floor.  Switching parties she'd probably have less sway with McConnell, and she'd be in the minority party.  For evidence as to why she might switch parties, it's worth examining some of the more recent men to switch allegiance in the Senate.

Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT)
Disregarding the strange case of Bob Smith (who kept switching parties throughout 1999 for reasons unknown to I think even him to this day, we have five senators in the past 25 years who have switched parties, most of them for reasons that Collins could appreciate if the national environment remains the same.  The first two were Richard Shelby and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, both of went from Republican to Democrat in the wake of the Republican Revolution of 1994.  Both men went to the right after the Republicans won reelection, gaining more power and aligning more fully with their states on a presidential level (keep in mind that at the time Colorado was a Republican state, and Bill Clinton was very unpopular).  Next up was the most famous party-switch of the modern era, Jim Jeffords of Vermont becoming an Independent who caucused with the Democrats, and in the process making the Democrats briefly the majority party.  All three of these men claimed that their party had left them and they felt ill-at-ease within their own caucus.  The two remaining senators were Joe Lieberman, who switched to Independent after losing a primary in 2006 to Ned Lamont but caucused with the Democrats (but was a continual thorn in the side of Harry Reid), and Arlen Specter, who switched parties in 2009 after realizing he probably wouldn't be reelected as a Republican (as he couldn't survive a primary).

Looking at these men, you can see that there is some argument to be made that Collins might switch parties.  For starters, it's hard to argue that she's to the left of her party on virtually all major issues that go through the Senate, similar to most of these men save Lieberman and Smith.  Like Shelby & Campbell, she probably stands a better shot of winning in a blue state like Maine as a Democrat in the future than as a Republican, particularly in 2020 when she'll have to run on the same ticket as Donald Trump, something I'm sure she's loathing having to do (lest we forget, Collins is only 64-she could have another 20 years in the Senate if she plays her cards right, and she seems to genuinely love being a senator).  And it's worth noting that none of these men stayed with the same exact voting record after their party switches-Jeffords and Specter moved decidedly to the left after they became Democrats, while Richard Shelby, still a senator today, is unrecognizable as a former Democrat.  Collins, particularly on votes where she's "troubled" publicly but ultimately toes a pretty moderate line, would have full range to simply vote against conservative orthodoxy that she disagrees with, not having to worry about Mitch McConnell if she were a Democrat.

What would it take for Collins to switch, then?  I think the scenario would most likely play out in 2019.  Let's say (and this is a bit speculative as it'll be a tough sell), the Democrats hold all of their seats in a bad midterm for President Trump, and pick up Nevada (probable) or an Arizona seat (less probable, but not out of the question).  That would make the Senate 50/50, similar to the situation posed to Jim Jeffords.  Collins has had to put up with Donald Trump as POTUS for two years, and is now going to be facing constant pressure from the White House and Mitch McConnell to stay in-line with the Republicans.  She also knows she'll have to run in a Clinton state two years later for the Senate in a political environment where ticket-splitting is an endangered species, and every time she sides with Trump on a major issue will be used against her.  It's not difficult to see her wanting to back herself (and her state's voters) more in this situation than a president she clearly cannot stand.  This situation includes a lot of ifs (it's hard to see Collins switching while the GOP is still in the majority or her vote won't decide the majority), but it's not impossible, and based on party-switching history, no one looks like a better candidate for it right now than Susan Collins.

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