Could Pro-Choice Advocacy Sway Susan Collins?

Senator Susan Collins of Maine

Is it any surprise that soon after Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement, the internet was flooded with discussion about Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska? These two senators, among the last Republican moderates now in office, consider themselves pro-choice. And since Justice Kennedy has been the swing conservative justice who has supported Roe v. Wade, his retirement means that Collins and Murkowski will be seeing a lot of pressure in the coming months after President “I am putting pro-life justices on the court” Trump nominates his pick to fill the court vacancy.

Is there any chance that the pressure from pro-choice forces could at all be effective, particularly for Collins, who may be the likelier of the two to vote “no”? The evidence is not inspiring. Collins has a history of voting for Trump’s judicial appointments, including Justice Neil Gorsuch. And her spokesperson recently indicated that Collins wouldn’t explicitly be taking Roe v. Wade into account in her decision to vote for Kennedy’s replacement. “Senator Collins does not apply ideological litmus tests to nominees,” her spokesperson wrote in an email to Maine’s Portland Press Herald.

Instead, Collins has highlighted her commitment to precedent. On CNN’s State of the Union last weekend, Collins said, "I would not support a nominee who demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade because that would mean to me that their judicial philosophy did not include a respect for established decisions, established law.” Does that mean a nominee who is hostile to Roe but doesn’t demonstrate their hostility would pass muster? Would Collins settle for a nominee’s generic respect for precedent?

Collins, however, won’t be left to her own devices. Just last year, she listened to constituent pressure regarding the Republicans’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and voted “no.” When she came back to Maine from Washington, she was greeted by cheers and applause at the airport from her constituents (as well as disparaging comments from Maine’s right-wing Republican governor, Paul LePage).

Then, Collins also received public pressure to say no to the GOP tax act … and voted for it.

Andrea Irwin, executive director of the Mabel Wadsworth Center (MWC), a community-based feminist health center in Bangor, Maine, says, “It seems like she’s trying to create a framework that allows her to vote for someone [that Trump will pick]—none of these nominees will explicitly state they’ll vote to overturn Roe. This is really typical of what we’ve seen from Senator Collins—demonstrating that she’s being thoughtful and taking her time to consider the different aspects of a vote. But ultimately [she] usually follows her party, despite her reputation as being a moderate.” Irwin adds that Collins’s depiction as a moderate seems “less and less convincing”—though, perhaps, the current definition of a Republican moderate is someone who appears thoughtful before ratifying what Trump wants.

Amy Fried, chair of the political science department at the University of Maine, says that she doesn’t think it’s impossible that Collins would vote against an anti-choice Trump pick. “But, I think it’s an uphill climb,” she says. “At this point it looks more likely that she will end up voting for a nominee,” citing as evidence Collins’s federal judgeship voting history, as well as the fact that the GOP could primary Collins if she doesn’t vote for a Trump pick.

“But,” says Fried, “that’s as of today.” After all, Fried acknowledges, Maine is a rather pro-choice state. (Indeed, Maine is one of just eight states where, if Roe were overturned, abortion would be fully legal.) “If there was an extensive hue and cry from Mainers,” she says, “it could make a difference.”

NARAL Pro-Choice America has already announced a 50-state campaign focused on protecting Roe v. Wade, and creating “meaningful opportunities for people across the country to take action—to speak out, to stand up and to fight for our fundamental freedoms.” In a press call with reporters last week, NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said, “These senators, who have been able to hide from these extreme views, are going to be put under the spotlight in the upcoming campaign, for the next days, weeks, and months, and be forced to answer for their positions and their votes like never before.”

On Tuesday, NARAL announced an ad campaign that will run in a handful of Maine’s local newspapers and news websites. The ads read, “Trump has been loud and clear in saying he'd pick Supreme Court Justices to end Roe v. Wade. We believe him. Don't you, Senator Collins?”

For its part, Planned Parenthood told Buzzfeed News last week that it plans to spend money on advocacy related to the open seat, but that it didn’t yet have specifics to share.

Irwin’s MWC has an advocacy arm as well. She says that since the center provides abortions, the composition of the Court is a priority—though the center has yet to figure out what exactly it will do. “We all knew [Kennedy’s retirement] was a possibility,” she says, “but all the other issues that impact women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have been distracting us, understandably.” MWC is active, however, in the Courts Matter coalition, which will be working to motivate the public to press Collins to protect reproductive rights.

Irwin notes that the center had a “practice run” with Gorsuch’s nomination, and through a rally and op-eds, was able to generate more public awareness about protecting Roe v. Wade. “[We got] people engaged that hadn’t really been engaged around judicial nominations before,” she says.

So the fight is gearing up. Collins, says Fried, has “been under more scrutiny for her votes lately, and under more pressure.”

“She definitely has a lot of work to do,” says Irwin, “to show people that they can depend on her.”

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