Sen. Susan Collins taught a master class last week in how to dominate and control a narrative.
With a decision that seems obvious in hindsight – but had much of the country and the entire state guessing in real time – Collins made the decision to stay in the Senate and not run for governor in 2018.
Of course she did.
She’s one of the most influential and popular politicians in the country. Her colleagues were begging her to stay. Her recent actions around health care earned her spontaneous applause at the airport.
She’s lauded as a sane voice in the swamp that is DC.
Had she decided to run, her internal polling showed her in a strong position in any Republican primary field.
Some political soothsayers point to other polling that showed her in trouble in a Republican primary. And no less authority on all things that are likely fictional – and possibly outright lies – Gov. Paul LePage doubted her chances among Republicans.
The show from last week, however, tells me how wrong all of that is.
Look, it pains me to say it. When reporters asked me what I thought Collins would do, “retire,” I joked. I’m a Democrat. Collins has been a champion on health care, but in my eyes her record is decidedly mixed. She is a Republican after all, and it’s a hard place to be as a Democrat to depend on Republicans to do what we think is right.
But here’s what Collins managed. She carefully managed her decision to draw the press – state and national – to the coast of Maine where she delivered a long health care policy speech while the cameras all rolled live. She made us wait and listen and watch.
Just the notion she might run had kept the Republican field small with no real frontrunner and delayed the entry of at least one biggish name, state Senate President Mike Thibodeau. With Collins out, the field may grow still larger.
Every eye was on Collins. Every camera turned her way. Talk radio was talking about it. Pop radio was talking about it. It was a nonpartisan, all-partisan affair.
And she did this – dominated the news for days and days – without saying something outrageous, without attacking anyone, without telling a lie.
Her star already bright, it has become even brighter because she represents the anti-Trump, the anti-LePage in the Republican Party. She’s the alternative, the old school Yankee Republican at a time when a whole bunch of folks are hungry for dealmakers instead of bomb throwers.
But there’s more to it than that.
If Collins had decided to run for governor, she could have stayed in the Senate for the duration of the campaign, giving her a national and nightly platform to make her case.
She already commands coverage whenever she wants it. Imagine if she decided she wanted it every day. She can insert herself into every discussion happening in Washington and likely be a pivotal vote, a standout voice.
While political insiders and reporters may recognize the Thibodeaus, Fredettes, Masons and Mayhews in the primary, the gap between Collins, who is universally known, and the other candidates in the primary is tremendous.
Frankly, it would cost any of them hundreds of thousands of dollars – maybe more – just to get people to recognize their names.
And, had Collins been in the race, that money would have been a lot harder to come by. With her position in the US Senate secure, even with a loss, until 2020, Republican funders would have thought twice about aligning against Maine’s most popular Republican. The money would have flowed to her campaign.
Plus Collins has a carefully managed relationship with the press and positive coverage that would be hard for the other Republicans to match.
I’m working for a Democrat, Jim Boyle, who’s running for governor. I think he’s the best person for the job against all comers. But I can say without bias that Collins is a more formidable opponent than anyone else currently in the Republican field.
Collins has supported the Republican Party in Maine. She’s raised money for it and down-ballot candidates. And even endorsed her new nemesis, LePage. After all these years – and with a 70 percent favorability rating and 75 job approval rating across all voters – I find it hard to believe that all of a sudden Republican voters would have turned their back on her.
Maybe. But I doubt it. And after what I saw last week, what we all saw — admit it, if you’re reading a political column, you were glued to the computer or the TV to find out what she was going to do – she would have crushed the primary field.