Political News

Susan Collins just put a big bet on the Senate. Is it a loser?

Posted October 13, 2017 8:39 a.m. EDT

— Maine's Susan Collins, one of the last remaining moderates in the Republican-held Senate, passed on a chance to run for her state's governorship in 2018 and, in so doing, placed a major bet that the broken political system can be fixed.

"I am a congenital optimist," Collins said in announcing her decision Friday in Maine. "I continue to believe that Congress can, and will, be more productive. I want to continue to play a key role in advancing policies that strengthen our nation, help our hardworking families, improve our health care system, and bring peace and stability to a troubled and violent world."

Collins' decision to stay put in a Senate -- and a political Washington -- that is, by all accounts, totally dysfunctional, makes her an anomaly among the so-called "governing wing" of the Republican Party.

Just last month, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who is in the midst of a nasty feud with President Donald Trump, announced he was leaving the Senate in 2018 despite having two years left on his term as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. Corker largely demurred when asked whether the current polarization in Washington -- and the unpredictability of the man in the White House -- had anything to do with his decision. But he did acknowledge that gridlock played a role.

"Am I burned out on hearings, hearing, hearing, hearings?" he told the Washington Examiner. "Yeah, a little bit. I'm more of a doer. Yeah ... I hit the wall a little bit on that."

In the House Republican ranks, a series of pragmatic-minded members have announced they will retire in 2018 -- with no future political plans -- including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Dave Reichert of Washington, Dave Trott of Michigan and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvana.

Dent, in particular, has been outspoken about how the dysfunction in Washington -- and within the Republican party, in particular -- impacted his decision to step aside. Here's the key part of his retirement statement:

"As a member of the governing wing of the Republican Party, I've worked to instill stability, certainty and predictability in Washington. I've fought to fulfill the basic functions of government, like keeping the lights on and preventing default.

Regrettably, that has not been easy given the disruptive outside influences that profit from increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder and chaos."

There's little question that most Republicans in Washington aren't having much fun -- including Collins. Which is why her decision is all the more intriguing.

The question going forward is whether Collins is hoping against hope that the Senate (and Washington) will change in any meaningful way or whethee there is an actual path back to some semblance of governing.

Her decision aside, most signs point directly to "no."

Consider this: Steve Bannon, the Trump White House's former top political strategist, is in the midst of recruiting primary challengers against eight of the nine Republican incumbents running for re-election to the Senate in 2018. (Only Ted Cruz is being spared by Bannon.) While it's unlikely that Bannon will succeed in defeating all -- or most -- of these incumbents, he will likely, at a minimum, put a scare into them. And, assuming they come back to the Senate in 2019, they are likely to be more wary of making across-the-aisle deals than they might be in a world without Bannon.

It's also worth noting that the Republican base -- in most of the states where Republican incumbents are running -- is far more closely aligned with the aggressive populism and nationalism espoused by Trump and Bannon than the calm moderation and deal-making offered by Collins.

Doubt it? Look at the results of last month's Republican Senate runoff in Alabama where controversial conservative former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore easily beat appointed Sen. Luther Strange despite the latter's strong endorsement from all corners of the party establishment.

The Republican Party around the country is more Moore than Collins. More Bannon than Corker. More Trump than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Collins knows that. She just believes it will change.

Count me as (much) more skeptical.