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What happens to a political centrist when there is no center?

I don’t know if there’s much of a “center” remaining in U.S. politics. But if there is, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine personifies it.

President Donald Trump greeting Sen. Susan Collins
President Donald Trump greeting Sen. Susan Collins during a signing ceremony for the "Know the Lowest Price Act" at the White House in Washington on October 10.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

I don’t know if there’s much of a “center” remaining in U.S. politics. But if there is, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine personifies it.

For most of the last two years, with a 51-49 partisan divide in the Senate, Collins and a couple of others (Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia come to mind) held the balance on many of the issues that divide our deeply divided country.

But there is not always a middle position. So I found it interesting to see what happened to Collins’ approval ratings after a recent instance of a vote on which there was no middle, specifically the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.

Collins voted aye. It was, in some ways, the key swing vote. Her 43-minute Senate floor statement explaining how she planned to vote was rambling and not particularly coherent. (Feel free to watch it here, but it will drive you a little crazy.) She insisted that she wasn’t voting the Republican party line and has supported many nominees chosen by presidents of both parties. But it amounted to an effort to search for middle ground when there was no middle ground.

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According to Morning Consult, which polled on Collins’ approval rating before and after the vote, Collins support among Republicans rocketed up 21 points, from 47 to 68 percent; her approval among Democrats plummeted 25 points, from 56 to 31; and her approval among independents dropped 15 points, from 56 to 41. Overall, her net approval rating dropped by 9 percentage points.

Remember, this was not a poll asking Mainers whether they agreed with Collins’ vote for Kavanaugh, but asking for their overall feelings about Collins, who has represented them since 1996 and has been re-elected three times including, most recently, in 2014, by 68 to 32 percent.

This enormous shift may blow over. The partisan divide over Kavanaugh was deeper than any previous Supreme Court nomination ever. Collins has two years left in her current term. She’ll be 68 when her term ends. I suppose she could retire. It will be interesting to see if her approval rating recovers.

But Collins remains among the most centrist of senators. The question is whether there exists much of a center.