The Margaret Chase Smith legacy Sen. Collins would rather avoid

Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith is a Maine political icon but it’s often overlooked that she lost her seat to a Democrat.

While many herald Smith for standing up against McCarthyism, voters’ decision to end her career bears lessons also applicable today about the danger of elected officials losing touch with the people back home.

Smith’s 32 years in public office came to a screeching halt when, after withstanding a strong primary challenge, she was defeated by Democrat Bill Hathaway in 1972.

In part, Smith suffered electorally because of her age and rumored poor health but more was involved in her loss.

Two years before, Smith seemed disconnected with what was going on with the Vietnam War.

At that time, students and others were upset when they learned about the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. At Kent State University, four protesters were killed by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970.

Addressing a group of striking students from 16 schools after the shooting at Kent State, Smith spoke in support of President Richard Nixon’s policies. According to one account, “When one student asked how her mail had been running on Cambodia, she turned to aide William Lewis, and asked audibly: ‘Bill, how has the mail been running on Cambodia?’ (6 to 1 against the invasion). The students gasped. For those who had been told to write their congresswoman rather than demonstrate, her response was hardly encouraging.” Smith also denied the fact that U.S. troops were in Laos.

As John Cole, the editor of the Maine Times, described the encounter, “There she was, the highest ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and she seemed to have almost no idea of what was happening in the war, and no idea how the students felt about it.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins delivers the 2015 Margaret Chase Smith Public Affairs Lecture at the University of Maine in Orono. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Overall, Smith’s votes, like Sen. Susan Collins’, were quite aligned with her party but with some striking independence. Smith even voted against two Supreme Court nominees chosen by the president of her own party — Nixon’s Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell — while Collins has supported every nominee to the high court, from Republican and Democratic presidents.

Last year Collins won great admiration for voting against repealing the Affordable Care Act. But now Collins faces new tests. After building a reputation for supporting Senate traditions and powers, including adhering to oversight responsibilities and fully vetting candidates, Collins appears unconcerned about proceeding on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination with just a small proportion of his documents and papers available to examine.

Collins also holds a reputation for being pro-choice, but has brushed aside the assessment  — held by supporters and opponents of legal abortion — that Kavanaugh believes further restrictions on women’s reproductive rights are constitutional. Collins’s trust in Kavanaugh seems disingenuous. At a time when Sen.Angus King reports that calls to his offices are running 95 percent against Kavanaugh, it also looks out of touch with Mainers.

Collins’ past strong wins make it seem rather unlikely she would lose if she ran again in 2020. But her approval numbers have dropped. If Collins votes for Kavanaugh, whoever becomes her opponent will receive funds from a weeks-old effort that’s already garnered around $200,000 in small donations; if Collins votes against Kavanaugh, no money will go to her future opponent.

Now Collins faces a Senate without John McCain, who she described as her mentor. On his death Collins noted, “We are losing someone who really, no matter who was the president, believed in the Senate’s role in checks and balances. . . He truly was a giant in the Senate, a towering figure and someone who really made a difference not just on policy, but in asserting the Senate’s constitutional role.”

Collins lamented that “The lions of the Senate are gone” but that role could be taken by others, including her. Recently journalist Martin Longman wondered why, given her seniority, Collins seems more a lamb than a lion. “Susan Collins has been in the Senate for a very long time and yet she has acquired shockingly little power or influence,” he wrote.

Collins could champion a reform agenda, perhaps focusing on campaign finance like McCain, or she could work with Elizabeth Warren in enacting an anti-corruption agenda.

Like Republican Sens. Jim Jeffords and Arlen Specter, Collins could find herself in a position where she could shift the body’s control by becoming unaffiliated with her party. No doubt she could win reelection as an Independent.

Collins could become a strong force in pushing the Senate to pursue oversight of the myriad Trump scandals that have gone without congressional investigation.

What Collins choses will affect her legacy and, like Smith, could determine how long she serves Maine people.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.