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2 GOP senators’ strategies diverge, but both are in peril

Gardner sided with Trump on 2020 votes slightly more than Collins

Sen. Susan Collins’ 2020 voting record is slightly less pro-Trump than Sen. Cory Gardner’s, but both are still vulnerable for reelection this year, Zeller writes.
Sen. Susan Collins’ 2020 voting record is slightly less pro-Trump than Sen. Cory Gardner’s, but both are still vulnerable for reelection this year, Zeller writes. (Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call and Tom Brenner/Getty Images; Composite by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Republican senators facing tough reelection races this year are stuck. They cannot afford to lose Donald Trump’s devoted followers. But they also need to win over voters in the middle who don’t approve of the president. 

Whichever way these senators go, they lose. Or so it looks now for two of the most endangered GOP incumbents, Cory Gardner and Susan Collins.

It would stand to reason that Gardner, representing a state — Colorado — that is trending Democratic, would have worked to establish a reputation for independence from Trump this year.

But Gardner’s voting record in 2020 reveals he has done nothing of the sort, at least in that one realm — choosing his ayes and nays on the Senate floor — where senators demonstrate in concrete terms where they stand.

On the 78 votes on which Trump expressed a view, Gardner sided with the president 72 times, voting against him five times, while missing one of the votes. He supported Trump on 93.5 percent of the votes Trump cared about.

Collins, the longtime Maine moderate, is sticking with the plan that worked in her previous four elections, breaking with her party more often than most of her colleagues. But her prospects for another term seem no better than Gardner’s.

Collins voted with Trump on 89.7 percent of the votes on which Trump took a position this year, which certainly won’t sit well with many of her Maine constituents absent any context.

The context is important: Her tally is the third-lowest among Senate Republicans and reflects that most of the votes on which Trump stated a view were on his nominees to federal judgeships and executive branch jobs. Collins parted with him on five of the 12 policy votes on which Trump took a position.

Gardner, it’s reasonable to presume, is a conservative voting his conscience. With a primary system that allows the most conservative voters to select the nominees, that makes sense. And his voting represents sound political strategy: In a polarized country, there are fewer moderate voters to persuade and it’s crucial to keep the party base motivated. His high level of support for Trump is also a reflection of the few positions on votes Trump took, giving senators few chances to differentiate themselves.

“I tend to view him as one of the most high-political-acumen politicians I’ve ever known,” said Kyle Saunders, a political scientist at Colorado State University who expects Gardner will lose to former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper anyway. That, Saunders argued, is the result of a state moving left, and a politician forced to try to retain Trump voters while also appealing to a large group of independents in Colorado who don’t like the president. Gardner, he said, “has been placed in a very intractable situation.”

Gardner grew up in Republican politics, having served on the staff of former Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard before his run for a House seat in the eastern plains of the state in 2010. Arriving in Washington the following year, Gardner sided with fellow Republicans on votes that split the parties more than 90 percent of the time. His presidential support tally this year is his lowest since Trump became president.

This year, Gardner was with GOP colleagues on the five votes on which he diverged with Trump. On two of the five votes on which he broke with the president, Gardner and a majority of the Republican Conference opposed Trump nominees proposed by Democrats to fill Democratic seats on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and National Labor Relations Board.

In two other cases, he, along with more than 20 other Senate Republicans, opposed Trump nominees proposed by Democratic senators to federal district courts. Gardner was also among a majority of Republicans when he voted to advance the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill, even though Trump opposed it because it would rename military bases named for Confederate generals.

That said, Gardner is a relative moderate in an increasingly partisan Congress. He demonstrates that in his willingness to reach across the aisle to work on legislation and to push his party to shift to the middle in discrete circumstances. It just doesn’t show up in his voting.

The Lugar Center and Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy last year ranked Gardner third among all senators on their annual Bipartisan Index, which evaluates senators on how often they co-sponsor bills offered by a senator of the other party, and how often they recruit senators of the other party to sponsor their bills.

And when Gardner convinced a majority of his fellow GOP senators this year to back legislation to permanently fund national park maintenance, he broke with longstanding party orthodoxy — which held that Congress should maintain its annual control over park funding — and moved his party left. Trump signed the bill in August.

But Gardner can’t shake his voting record. Democrats are running an ad arguing that he and Trump “go together like peanut butter and jelly.”

Collins, by contrast, was the only Republican to oppose two of Trump’s picks for federal appeals court judgeships, Cory Wilson and Justin Walker. 

She was also one of the few to break with Trump on policy votes. Collins voted to stop Trump from using U.S. forces to attack Iran without Congress’ authorization. She opposed a Republican bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. And she sided with Democrats on a resolution that would have revoked a Trump administration rule changing the way the government evaluates banks for lending in poor communities.

Democrats have argued that Collins’ breaks with her party have come when her votes didn’t matter. That is not true. Collins’s 2017 vote to preserve the 2010 health care law was just as consequential as the late Arizona Sen. John McCain’s famous thumbs-down. She provided a crucial vote in 2009 for President Barack Obama’s stimulus law, and did the same the following year when the Senate passed the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill.

The Lugar Center and Georgetown found Collins was the most bipartisan senator in 2019 and she has the highest lifetime score on Lugar’s index of any active senator.

But her travails in Maine — she’s facing the toughest race of her career against Maine state House Speaker Sara Gideon — reflect how key votes in support of Trump have tarnished her reputation for independence, perhaps irreparably.

“In the past, Collins received mostly positive coverage in the national press. This year, that’s changed,” said Janet Martin, a professor of government at Maine’s Bowdoin College. “They have exposed her inconsistencies and the fact she is not that independent maverick Republican” that Mainers have long embraced.

Gideon’s ads have highlighted Collins’ contention, in voting in February to acquit Trump of impeachment charges that he abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, that Trump had learned a lesson, as well as her high level of support for his judicial nominees, especially Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Susan Collins has been an enabler,” one Gideon ad contends. 

Another quotes Becky Shepherd, owner of the Wild Oats Bakery in Brunswick, Maine: “Susan is not the same Susan that we sent to Washington.”

In her first four election wins, Collins built majorities by attracting independent and even Democratic women, like Shepherd, into her fold. Trump, facing a record gender gap in preelection polls, is making it difficult to keep that coalition intact. 

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