PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — She is not on the ballot this fall, yet the fight over Susan Collins’ political future is already raging.
Interest in the Maine Republican senator’s 2020 re-election has exploded in the days since she cast the deciding vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick — a vote that helped transform the balance of power on the nation’s high court for a generation and suddenly complicates Collins’ path to a fifth term.
Half a dozen Democratic prospects are openly considering running against the Republican political powerhouse, while an online fund has generated $3.6 million — and counting — for Collins’ ultimate Democratic challenger. The would-be candidates include Susan Rice, who had been one of President Barack Obama’s closest aides. Rice is not currently a Maine resident — she has family ties to the state — but would bring political celebrity that could make it difficult for the state’s shallow bench of lesser-known Democrats to stand out.
The emergence of a crowded field in a Senate contest two years away underscores the extraordinary political moment triggered by the debate over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Fighting allegations of sexual misconduct from three decades ago, he won confirmation by a razor-thin margin on Saturday over the screaming objections of Democrats and women’s groups in all corners of the nation.
Collins’ Alaska colleague, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, was the lone Republican to oppose the nomination. Now, Alaska GOP officials are considering whether to seek a replacement or encourage her not to seek re-election as a Republican when her term expires in 2022.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the lone Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh, faces a potential revolt from his own party’s liberal base in his immediate re-election test in November. Manchin told The Associated Press last weekend that he followed Collins’ lead.
“She had an opportunity to make history,” said Maine Democrat Rosa Scarcelli, a businesswoman who previously ran for governor and is among Collins’ many potential challengers. “I’m disappointed and angry.”
Many Maine Democrats prefer that a woman take on Collins, although few, if any, enjoy the statewide notoriety and fundraising prowess needed to defeat New England’s last remaining Republican senator.
Many may try.
The Democrats’ prospect list is topped by Rep. Chellie Pingree, who Collins defeated once already, back in 2002.
Pingree’s daughter, Hannah, who served as the youngest woman elected state house speaker before stepping away from politics, said she’s waiting until after the midterms to decide on a Collins challenge.
“It’s too soon to say what I might do,” Hannah Pingree told the AP. “I have taken some time out of running for office to raise some young kids and they’re getting a little older. It’s not impossible.”
Maine Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon also hinted at a potential run.
Gideon, who’s often clashed with outgoing Republican Gov. Paul LePage, said she’s focused on winning more Democratic seats in the Maine House for now. After November’s midterm elections, however, she said she’d “be seriously considering how I can elevate the voices of people who deserve and demand to be heard and represented in DC.”
Other potential prospects include former state house speaker Emily Cain, state attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills, and liberal activist Betsy Sweet.
Sweet said a big factor would be whether Collins, 65, decides to run at all. She said Maine needs “someone who’s not entrenched in the old way of doing things.”
“We need someone who’s more transparent and more willing to actually meet and listen to the people of Maine,” said Sweet, who acknowledged that she’s also considering a run.
Three men, current Democratic Senate nominee Zak Ringelstein, state Rep. Seth Berry and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, said they’re more interested in supporting a female candidate than running themselves.
“I have made it my personal mission to defeat Susan Collins,” said Ringelstein, who said that he’d prefer to help a Collins’ challenger as a U.S. senator but wouldn’t rule out a second run in 2020 if he loses next month.
Berry is also open to a Senate bid. Strimling said he’s is not.
“From my perspective we need a strong progressive woman to run, and that’s who I’ll be looking to support,” Strimling said.
Rice is a wildcard. She first served Obama as his ambassador to the United Nations and then as his national security adviser. Obama was considering nominating Rice to lead the State Department during his second term, but she withdrew her nomination after she became embroiled in the controversy over American deaths at a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
Collins was among the Republicans who said she was troubled by Rice’s explanations for the deadly attack.
Rice’s public interest in the Senate seat was met with a combination of skepticism and curiosity among energized Maine Democrats, who have tried and failed for much of the last three decades to defeat Collins.
The former Obama aide’s connection to Maine has already emerged as a central issue. Rice, whose primary residence is in the Washington area, emphasized “long and deep” ties to Maine as she attacked Collins during a weekend appearance at the New Yorker Festival.
“I think she did a disservice to people in Maine who were counting on her. She has betrayed women across this country,” Rice charged. She said she’d give a possible Senate bid “due consideration after the midterms.”
Rice also said her family “goes back generations” in Maine and that she’s owned a home in the state for the last 20 years.
Her maternal grandparents emigrated to Maine from Jamaica in the 1910s. Rice’s grandfather, David Augustus Dickson, worked as a shipper, porter and janitor. Her grandmother, Mary Dickson, a maid and seamstress, was named Maine State Mother of the Year in 1950.
That same year, Rice’s mother, Lois Dickson Rice, was valedictorian of Portland High School. Rice’s great-uncles all graduated from Maine’s Bowdoin College.
Rice’s family once lived on Lafayette Street in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood, once an immigrant enclave now home to an expensive rental market.
One neighborhood resident, Lisa Morris, said she was surprised to learn she lives on the same street that Rice’s family once did.
“It would be pretty awesome to have a senator from Maine who was a woman of color,” said the 55-year-old university policy analyst.
Not far away, 86-year-old Judy Halpert recalled walking to school with Rice’s mother, whom she called a close friend.
Halpert doesn’t like Collins “at all,” and pointed to Rice’s long roots in the state.
“She has a right to be a Mainer as well,” she said. “I’d vote for her in a minute.”