Sen. Susan Collins has mostly stayed mum as white nationalists have taken over Maine’s GOP. But as the racist rhetoric of her Republican colleagues escalates and gets more explicit, the so-called “moderate” senator is walking into a political trap on her path to re-election next year: continue to coddle the far-right voters in her base, or call out hate speech at the risk of losing the hardcore Republican votes she’ll need to win what’s expected to be her toughest race in decades.
Maine’s longstanding reputation for political moderation and independence was cemented a quarter century ago with the election of independent Governor (now U.S. Senator) Angus King in 1995. “Moderate” Republican Olympia Snowe won her Senate seat that same year, and was joined by Collins two years later.
But since the 2008 election of America’s first black president, Maine Republicans have consistently voted for the most far-right candidates on the ballot, including ideologues who blame racial and religious minorities — especially immigrants, migrant workers, Muslims and refugees — for the country’s economic woes.
In the spring of 2010, Tea Party-backed candidate Paul LePage, then mayor of the central Maine city of Waterville, clobbered his opponents in the gubernatorial primary, winning more votes than his two closest competitors — businessman Les Otten and the comparatively moderate Peter Mills — combined. LePage won the governorship that year and again in 2014. Over the course of his two terms, his racist remarks got uglier and scarier — from telling Maine’s NAACP chapter to “kiss my butt,” to falsely claiming the “overwhelming majority” of drug dealers in Maine are “people of color or people of Hispanic origin,” calling such people “the enemy,” and suggesting they be shot on sight.
When GOP voters caucused in 2016 to choose their preferred candidate for president, they picked Ted Cruz as the best man for the job, followed by Donald Trump, with “moderate” John Kasich coming in a distant third. In November, Trump nearly beat Hillary Clinton in Maine, losing by just 3 percentage points and picking up an electoral vote in the process.
The state’s taste for moderation had clearly soured, and the mood of its top Republicans curdled into a sickening contempt for the poorest and most powerless Mainers among us: refugees and asylum-seekers from war-ravaged African nations.
“Racism is deeply embedded in rural Maine,” observed veteran political columnist Al Diamon. “There was a hesitancy before Trump came along to express it as overtly, though.”
The old renegade racists in Maine’s GOP would crawl out from under their rocks on occasion to lob lies about Muslim immigrants trying to impose Sharia law or whatever. Republican state lawmaker Larry Lockman (one of those old-school haters) and Jason Savage, a LePage crony who’s now the state party’s executive director, both subsequently developed more sophisticated ways to fire up the racist base, like launching fake news websites (one of which was infiltrated by Mainer’s Crash Barry; see “Maine First Mania,” Oct. 2018) and using social media to foment fear and hatred of minorities.
The new breed of Maine bigots are similarly tech savvy, but they reach further to the right for ideas, out where the neo-Nazis, the Klan, and other white nationalists dwell. And unlike relative outliers like Lockman, this new cadre now leads Maine’s GOP.
Meet Nick Isgro, Waterville’s current mayor and Vice Chairman of the Maine Republican Party. Last March, Isgro used the state party’s official Twitter account to spread a lie about immigrants causing disease outbreaks in Maine. As journalist (and Mainer contributor) Andy O’Brien has documented, Isgro frequently uses social media to demonize Muslims, Jews (a.k.a. “global elites”), and the Catholic Church (Isgro belongs to an ultra-conservative Catholic sect that considers Pope Francis a heretic).
The rhetoric of Isgro, Savage and LePage has gotten so disturbing of late that even Maine’s mainstream media, long hesitant to call out racists by name, is speaking out. Last June, Portland Press Herald editorial page editor Greg Kesich wrote that this troika is promoting a conspiracy theory called “White Genocide” or “The Great Replacement” — the paranoid belief that, as Isgro recently wrote, “global elites and their partners here in Augusta” are using refugees as “human pawns” in a “game” to “invade” Maine and make whites a subjugated racial minority.
“I don’t think the majority of Mainers believe that,” Diamon said of the White Genocide theory. “But there is an undercurrent of people who do.”
Although Collins is the highest Republican officeholder in Maine, she’s rarely been called upon to rebuke the racists who hold power in her state’s party — in part because, as a U.S. Senator, she’s considered above the fray. The few times she has deigned to comment, her carefully crafted remarks have been toothless, like the expressions of “concern” and “disappointment” she’s made in the wake of Trump’s most blatantly hateful statements, a rhetorical tic of hers that’s now become a punch line.
“Susan doesn’t want to confront this, she doesn’t want to be drawn into these fights,” said Diamon. “If she’s forced into talking about immigration, she can use dog whistles. She can say, ‘I’m all for legal immigration.’ At the same time, she will slant it in a way that makes it seem like she’s not happy about asylum-seekers. It’s a way to straddle that line without addressing reality.”
That may not be a tenable position for long. Racist provocations have been on the rise in Maine, as have confrontations between white nationalists and the citizen-activists who expose and protest them. The pending impeachment of the president is expected to bring those tensions to a boil nationwide.
If things really get ugly in Maine, Collins may finally be forced by public opinion to do more than “disagree” with the white power movement. With her popularity among Mainers at an all-time low (35 percent, according to a recent poll), her first real stand against racist hate in Maine could very well be her last.