A year ago, the political world’s attention was fixed on the Oct. 13 meeting of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce in Rockport, where Maine Sen. Susan Collins was finally going to say if she planned to run for governor in 2018.

When Collins announced that she would skip the race and stay in the Senate, the pundits were unanimous.

“This will be bad news for Donald Trump,” veteran political analyst Stuart Rothenberg told The New York Times. But he added that it would be good news for those in Washington “who are looking for dispassionate, pragmatic leadership and for members willing to cross party lines on important votes.”

A year and a day later, it’s almost impossible to remember what he was talking about.

In 2017, Collins was getting spontaneous applause in the airport on her way home from Washington; now she and her staff push past protesters to get to work. Back then, she was one of the most popular members of the U.S. Senate, with appeal that crossed party lines; now she is reviled by many of the same Democratic-leaning independent women who had once supported her campaigns.

What happened? Simple.

Collins stopped opposing Trump on issues that matter to a large number of her constituents. She voted for a tax bill that threatened key safety net programs by exploding the deficit. She failed to deliver a promised health insurance market stabilization bill, which was needed to fix problems that the tax bill had created.

And the pro-choice senator from Maine provided the crucial 50th vote for anti-abortion rights Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, rationalizing the allegations of sexual assault against him by saying his accuser must have been mistaken.

That’s what happened. The more interesting question is: Why?

At least in part, it’s what comes from hyperpolarized politics. There are no stand-alone issues anymore. Every position you take signifies your true tribe.

But I suspect it also has something to do with what she learned when she explored the governor’s race.

Throughout the summer of 2017, a consensus emerged that the only thing that could stand between Collins and the Blaine House was a Republican primary. Collins, it was said, had problems with “the base.”

Gov. Paul LePage called her “dangerous” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, adding that she was “more interested in preening for the cameras than in making real progress.”

It’s hard to know how much trouble she really was in, but there’s no question that the party activists in Maine have been moving in LePage’s direction for years.

It didn’t take long for Collins to change trajectory. A month after her announcement in Rockport, she showed up in Biddeford with Ivanka Trump. Then Collins voted for the tax bill, even though she knew provisions in it would destabilize the health insurance market and drive up premiums.

At the time of her vote, Collins told reporters that she had two separate bills to fix that problem and an “ironclad” promise from Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that her bills would pass by year’s end. By March, there was no bill, but Collins blamed Democrats for the failure — she didn’t blame her party’s leadership.

Blaming the other party for being partisan was also a theme of her speech in which she explained her vote for Kavanaugh. She failed to mention that Kavanaugh himself had set a new standard for partisanship, at one point warning Democratic senators “what goes around comes around.”

Whether her shift to the right was intentional or intuitive, it appears to have worked — if the volume of letters to the editor means anything.

Along with the anguished letters from former Collins supporters who say they will never vote for her again, we are getting multiple letters of support from the same people who used to call her RINO, for “Republican in Name Only.”

According to Collins’ spokeswoman Annie Clark, it’s the commentators, not Collins, who changed. “The pundits seem to let the anger of the far left influence their predictions for the future — and thus they are forced to conclude that whenever Sen. Collins sides with the Democrats it is because she has taken a principled position and courageously stood against her party,” Clark told me in an email. “When she sides with the Republicans, however, it is because she has a cynical political motive or has caved to party pressure, or both.”

This is a bad time in history to make predictions. But it’s not a prediction to look backward and notice that Collins could have used her swing-vote power as leverage against Trump or to force her party to re-establish bipartisan norms in the Senate. She chose not to.

In doing so, she may have lost the pundits, but she has gained one important fan.

Interrupting himself at Kavanaugh’s swearing-in ceremony Oct. 6, President Trump said: “I thought that Susan was incredible yesterday. … I have great respect for Susan Collins. And I always have.”

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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