According to the pundits, Sen. Susan Collin (R-Maine) had no business running for reelection this year, let alone winning the race. In a country as polarized as ours, moderates seemed sure to go the way of the dinosaurs. Collins was the last Republican in New England running for reelection at a time when polling suggested President Trump was deeply unpopular throughout the Northeast. For most of the campaign, as polling showed her well behind, Washington wrote her off entirely.
And then she won.
In the days and weeks to come, the experts who got it so wrong will try to explain away their mistake. Voters in the wilds of Maine, they’ll argue, are much more conservative than the suburbs of, say, Boston. Collins sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, they’ll explain, meaning she’s uniquely equipped to bring federal dollars back to the Pine Tree State. Collins voted against Justice Amy Comey Barrett’s confirmation just days before the election, reestablishing her bonifides with more liberal voters.
I’m sure all of those elements played a limited role. But I have another theory. Even as Washington conservatives lambasted her for being a “Republican in Name Only” and Washington liberals shook their fists in frustration when, in their view, she did too little to take President Trump to task, voters in Maine actually liked her brand of moderate, balanced, independent politics.
Unlike Washington insiders who view policymaking as a team sport — meaning you’re supposed to blindly support your team even when you disagree with its decisions — Collins’ approach is to take each decision on the merits, doing what she believes is best for Mainers and the country as a whole. Lo and behold, given the results, voters appear to like that way of legislating. Go figure.
Throughout her career, Sen. Collins has shown up to do the critical but often thankless work of actual legislating. Witness her near record streak of 7,000 roll call votes and her recent work to support Maine’s small businesses by leading the development of the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program. Voters appreciate her work and they are smart enough to realize it actually takes a tremendous amount of courage to do what she does.
During these last four years, it would have been very easy for her to throw in either with conservatives or to become a Republican thorn in Donald Trump’s side. But she never did, making her a partisan disappointment to both the far left and the far right. Confounding as that might have been to the pollsters and pundits who presumed that every vote to shock Democrats or to offend Republicans would alienate her from core elements of her constituency, Collins’ independence proved not only to make her an effective legislator — it proved politically successful as well.
Conventional wisdom today frequently dictates that the only way to succeed in national politics today is to pick a team and go all-in. Over the last four years, that meant either siding with President Trump on everything, or excoriating him for nearly anything. But that’s not where the voters are. They understand that the issues the nation faces are complex, and that crafting solutions will inevitably be complicated.
Collins understood that, and put her faith in the voters. Given the polling, that is, first and foremost, a testament to Collins. Rather than sacrifice her conscience to political convenience, she did what she thought was right.
But the results in Maine also represent a strike against the polarizing conventional wisdom. Voters, it turns out, are more sophisticated than Washington insiders would have you believe. As evidenced by the fact that Joe Biden won Maine, a range of Mainers split their tickets — voting for the Democratic presidential ticket and a Republican senator on the same ballot. They’re willing to accept that their leaders may not share their sensibility on every issue because they prize their independence.
Politics isn’t a game, and governing is more than a purity test. Neither party is going to have all the answers — and the best solutions are likely to emerge from melding the best ideas from left and right. Collins has shown an unwavering commitment to political independence because she knows that’s the right approach. As America looks toward 2021 — with an evenly divided Congress confronted with the biggest challenges in generations — we’ll need more House and Senate members to embrace anew the commonsense pragmatism that has defined Susan Collins throughout her career.
Margaret White is executive director of No Labels, a national organization working to revive bipartisanship.
The article first appeared on The Hill