The Susan Collins Dilemma

A new Buzzfeed article asks why no national resources were invested in trying to challenge Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine this year. Various people offer defenses or condemnations of the decision. But I think it raises bigger philosophical questions in strategic voting and campaigning that apply beyond Maine.

On the one hand, it makes complete sense to ignore this race. It wasn’t particularly close to begin with, she’s one of the more liberal Republicans left in Washington, and she’s very well liked by both Maine voters in general and many of the traditionally Democratic pressure/activist groups.

On the other hand, all those groups (and the national Democratic organizations) should have considered that no matter how much she has supported certain liberal positions, her Republican affiliation means she’ll be making a Republican Senate majority more likely (possibly even becoming the deciding factor), and that in turn means at least 50 far more conservative Senators voting against those issues and controlling the agenda. No matter how many votes she casts for Planned Parenthood, her vote for majority leader automatically outweighs that by a lot. I feel like they haven’t done that obvious math.

This is a good example why I have a problem when left-leaning independents (and some Democrats) say they want to keep an open mind and consider voting for moderate Republicans, even if they would never consider voting for a regular or right-wing Republican candidate. If I accept the premise that she’s moderate or even liberal — and I actually think there’s a lot in her voting record to dispute even that — her re-election alone makes it vastly more likely that a whole battery of extremist policies will be put forward and possibly even pass the Senate, even if she votes against them all. If you don’t support the overall Republican agenda, you can’t vote for their maverick/liberal backbenchers even if a specific candidate has voted or will vote the way you want on your issues, because as long as they support their party’s legislative majority, the mainstream position of the party is what will carry through.

I’m sure someone will now make the “but voting for moderate Republicans will make the party more moderate!” argument here, but I haven’t really seen evidence that it actually works like that in practice. Plus, the so-called moderates like Collins (and a few others) really tend to end up voting for the extreme agenda the vast majority of the time when the heat is on.

If they weren’t supportive of the bulk of the Republican agenda, the candidates wouldn’t be registered as Republicans in the first place — or they would have left the party like Lincoln Chafee or Jim Jeffords or Arlen Specter all did.

And in the end, don’t we want a clear choice between parties, agendas, and directions anyway?