Editor’s Note: Inside Climate News is a web-based, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013 for its stories on lax regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines. This is one of a series of stories from ICN examining the positions and climate policy records of candidates in key U.S. Senate elections.

Eighteen years ago, Sen. Susan Collins stood with eight other GOP senators to block President George W. Bush’s plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. To let the oil companies in, Collins said, “would be akin to wasting resources that should rightfully be there for future generations.”

But in 2017, while voicing misgivings, she voted to open the pristine wilderness area to oil exploration as part of President Trump’s big tax cut bill, which she supported.

That vote began the unraveling of the environmental community’s longstanding support for Collins.

Now, large membership groups like the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club are lined up against Collins in what is turning out to be a difficult bid for a fifth term in office. She has been trailing in polls behind Democratic challenger and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Collins has the strongest pro-environment voting record in the Congressional GOP, and is one of the few party leaders who has consistently accepted the science on humanity’s role in climate change.

But the green groups, like several progressive and women’s organizations that have abandoned Collins, such as Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign, say her support for Trump and his agenda have made it impossible for them to back her.

“We needed senators, especially Republican senators, to stand up to the Trump administration, the most anti-environmental administration ever,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “Unfortunately, on far too many occasions, when we really needed Sen. Collins’ support, she wasn’t there.”

Trump put Collins in tough spot

Collins’ decision-making in the Trump era – often airing doubts but ultimately throwing her support behind the president – has become the stuff of “Saturday Night Live” satire. After prolonged reflection, she supported Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Trump’s impeachment acquittal.

Those high-profile votes spurred Democrats around the country to contribute money for Collins’ defeat. As a result, Gideon has raised $23 million, outpacing Collins’ $16 million haul, and making it the most expensive U.S. Senate race in Maine history.

James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, said that Collins’ political future would have been equally shaky if she had broken from the Republican Party on the key votes.

“Donald Trump has repeatedly put her in situations where she cannot win,” Melcher said. As it was, Collins’ vote for Kavanaugh helped tamp down a potential primary challenge from the right, possibly by then-Gov. Paul LePage, who had twice proven he could win statewide office in Maine.

Collins can fairly argue that her environmental voting record hasn’t changed much under Trump – her score on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard now hovers near her lifetime average of 61 percent, substantially higher than that of any other current Republican Senate candidate. She voted against both Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler when Trump nominated them to head the Environmental Protection Agency and opposed the rollback of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But she supported many other Trump nominees opposed by environmentalists, including Kavanaugh, who has a record of skepticism about federal authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

In fact, Collins’ environmental voting record has see-sawed. She previously won the LCV’s endorsement both in 2008, when she was one of just three senators with a perfect 100 percent on the league’s scorecard, and in 2014, when she scored zero, casting votes in support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and against clean energy tax credits.

Collins’ supporters argue her record reflects that she is not beholden to party or ideology. “Despite which party controls the White House, Senator Collins has always taken a pragmatic, thoughtful approach to our climate – and has always sought to find common ground and forge compromise rather than focus on what might divide us,” Kevin Kelley, her campaign spokesman, said in an email.

Early in the Obama administration, Collins and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., co-sponsored “cap-and-dividend” legislation as an alternative to the “cap-and-trade” bill then foundering in the Senate. It would have put a price on carbon, but less directly than a tax, while distributing the revenue in “dividend” checks to citizens to help offset increased energy costs.

But no big climate program ever made it through the Senate in the Obama years. And with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., firmly opposed to economy-wide climate legislation, Collins has not pushed further. She did not sign on to a “cap-and-dividend” measure now before Congress that is similar to her own 2010 bill.

In the current Congress, Collins has co-sponsored bills prohibiting withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, calling on Congress and the president to act on climate, and supporting regional greenhouse gas reduction programs. All were dead on arrival in McConnell’s Senate.

She is one of seven Republicans in the bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, but the group lacks the cohesiveness or clout of the Republican environmentalist bloc that Collins joined in 2002 to block Arctic drilling. Before her vote for Trump’s 2017 tax bill, Collins was the lone Senate Republican to join a failed effort to strip Arctic drilling from the package.

“I honestly don’t think she’s changed that much” from her voting record in the past, Melcher said. “It’s just that the Trump presidency has made it a lot harder for her brand of bipartisanship to work well.”

Gideon has energized environmental voters

Gideon has something that no previous Democratic challenger to Collins has been able to bring to the race: a serious chance of winning. She is far better funded than the Democrats in the last two lopsided contests, each of which Collins won by more than 30 points. And several recent independent polls show Gideon running about 5 percentage points ahead of Collins.

Last year, Gideon helped shepherd a big package of climate and clean energy bills through the Legislature with bipartisan support. If elected, Gideon said she would push legislation to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and fight to undo Trump’s regulatory rollbacks.

“Investing in renewable energy and moving towards a carbon neutral future will help combat some of the threats to Maine’s key industries like warming waters, ocean acidification and drought,” Gideon said, in announcing her climate plan.

Collins has attacked Gideon for co-sponsoring a carbon fee-and-dividend bill that never made it through the Legislature last year. “Maine workers can’t afford Sara Gideon,” said one of Collins’ ads, asserting that the bill Gideon supported would have raised the cost of fuel by 40 cents per gallon. In fact, the carbon fee that Gideon backed would have started at just 4 cents a gallon, and revenue would have been returned to Maine citizens in dividend checks. The cap-and-dividend plan that Collins herself co-sponsored in Congress a decade ago took much the same approach.

In any case, Gideon’s current climate plan doesn’t include carbon fees.

Gideon defeated two progressive supporters of the Green New Deal in the Maine Democratic primary, and she neither endorses nor criticizes that idea. In an interview with Bustle, a lifestyle-oriented web publication that caters to young women, she said the Green New Deal is about “facing the challenges that we have today in a forward-looking way.”

There’s an additional element of uncertainty in the Maine Senate race because of the ranked-choice voting process the state adopted in 2016, which adds a degree of uncertainty to the Senate race.

Under the system, voters have the option of ranking candidates in their order of preference in races with three or more contenders. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent on the first tally, the candidate at the bottom is eliminated and their supporters’ votes are given to whoever those voters marked as their second choice. That process continues until one candidate wins the majority of the remaining vote pool.

The two independent candidates in the race both are running on energy and climate issues: Max Linn, a financial planner from Bar Harbor, whose signature issue is opposition to Central Maine Power’s hydropower transmission line from Canada; and Lisa Savage, an activist, former teacher and Green Party member who is running as an independent and embraces the Green New Deal.

Collins has a relatively strong climate record, if viewed in isolation. But senators don’t operate in isolation, and with Trump in the White House and McConnell the majority leader in the Senate, Collins has not been in a position to make much difference on climate, even if she accepts the science.

Gideon’s work turning climate legislation into law in Maine means she knows the issues as well as the political pitfalls. That’s just icing on the cake for many environmentalists, who are inclined to support any Democratic challenger to Collins to help tip the Senate into Democratic control and wrest it from McConnell’s hands.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:25 p.m. on Sept. 24, 2020, to remove the reference to Emily’s List.


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