Spin doctors at work

She’ll stay. There was a collective sigh of relief around the state and the country when Susan Collins, one of the few grown-ups in Washington, decided to continue her service in the U.S. Senate. Despite the temptation to come home and run for governor, she “put paid to” that notion last week.

Now it’s spin time. Those Republicans who had already entered the gubernatorial race can point to their entry prior to the Collins decision as a badge of courage. Gov. Paul LePage will celebrate his September comment that Collins would “back down” if his base rallied against her. Now his theory that she is “done in Maine” will not be tested until 2020, when her current Senate term expires.

Not to be outdone in the spin department, none other than Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader in Washington, said: “Her decision to remain in the Senate is important not only for the people of Maine, who she serves so well, but for the nation as a whole.” This from the McConnell who was measuring Collins for concrete sneakers only a month ago when she sank Senate hopes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Now she’s the bee’s knees.

Anyone who chooses to run for public office must endure the many ways we now can belittle our public servants anonymously from the privacy of our electronic devices. Senator Collins is uniquely able to keep her focus on the work at hand. Her value as a U.S. senator cannot be overestimated.

Just a few days before her decision, the Maine Democratic Party gave us a look at how they would play a Collins candidacy. In an email, the D’s slammed Collins for “back and forth games,” for political expediency, for “toying with the media.” Not a word about policy, nor about the senator’s yeoman work in standing up for informed, dispassionate decision-making. Nope. If she ain’t for us, she’s against us. Political expediency 101.

It would have made more sense for the Democrats to (a) wait until her announcement and (b) skip the trite rhetoric, but they couldn’t resist. Even before they knew which race she was in, they gave us a taste of what we are in for over the next year. Sure, anyone in politics soon learns to shake that stuff off, but still. Now that she has taken a pass on the gubernatorial election, they could have spared us the disrespect to Collins in their email.

Had the senator opted to run for governor, it would have been a wild ride. If they get one more entrant, Democrats will have enough candidate manpower to field a soccer team. Republicans already have four candidates. A Collins candidacy would have made the race a nationally-spotlighted referendum on the future of the Republican party.

The divide within the Republican party will still play out, albeit on a smaller (Maine) stage, depending on who else gets in the race now that Collins is out. So far, it is LePage’s surrogate, former Democrat Mary Mayhew, representing the right. Ken Fredette, House minority leader and loyal supporter of the governor, has never felt the LePage love, even though he put it all on the line for the governor within his House Republican caucus. Sen. Garrett Mason is also a conservative, though a quieter one.

The fourth Republican candidate, Shawn Moody, said he plans a reprise of his 2010 election bid, though he has not officially filed. He ran then as an independent, and his straightforward, pragmatic “Maine-iness” earned him the affection of a swath of the population, but less than 5 percent of the votes. He presents the only contrast to Republicans already in.

That could change. With Collins out, other Republicans are dipping their toes into the water. They are rumored to include former legislator-turned-lobbyist Josh Tardy, perennial congressional candidate Charlie Summers (also a former secretary of state and state senator) and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, who distinguished himself as a beacon of calm and voice of reason in a turbulent State House over the past several years.

Remember the math. Take the number of registered voters in either party, divide by anticipated voter turnout, divide again by number of candidates, and you will have the appallingly low number of voters who will nominate the candidates between whom the rest of us must choose.

Open primaries would have solved that problem, but we can get there only through the largely partisan legislature, a legislature that once again rejected proposals for open primaries, as they have every year that they have been introduced.

Our only hope now is for legislators, in special session next week, to amend the ranked-choice voting initiative passed a year ago and allow RCV in primaries. That will hold primary candidates to a somewhat higher standard in terms of their ability to attract broad support and diminish public anxiety about the “spoiler” effect of long-shot candidates who make elections unpredictable.

Democrats already have shown that they have no intention of taking the high road this election year. Republicans are sure to follow suit. “Playing games?” The political parties wrote the book.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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