After every federal election, pieces inevitably crop up in the Maine press explaining why the result was good news for Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME): Republicans win big? That must mean Collins's star is on the rise. The GOP loses seats? Maine's senior senator is bound to see her clout increase.
The "heads she wins, tails she wins" media reflex is one I've mocked over the years: A bias toward framing all events as empowering Collins (something which, not incidentally, plays into her own preferred narrative) speaks to broader, systemic problems with how Collins is covered by local and national reporters.
That said, there's a strong case that something really has changed this time around. I'd argue that Collins has never been more powerful or more important. Consider:
--Taking bold stances that shape the debate has never been a part of Collins's playbook. Instead, her influence has always flowed from the ability to cast a vote that puts a bill over the top or, alternatively, blocks legislation unless and until her priorities are adhered to. (See e.g. Collins's tie-breaking vote for the third Bush tax cut, on the one hand, and her cloture-defeating move to block the DISCLOSE Act on the other.) With a 52-48 Senate as the chokepoint for legislation in the next Congress, that "on the bubble" leverage will only increase.
--Because 60 votes are required to break a filibuster, any Collins defections will inevitably give cover to the red state Democrats needed to reach that magic number, making her cooperation a threshold condition for passing most major GOP legislation. On appointments and other items where a bare majority is needed, her backing may be even more critical.
The counterargument to the above is that Collins faced much the same situation during parts of the George W. Bush administration--and instead of leveraging her potential influence, she played the role of loyal Bush ally, blending into the GOP woodwork. But Collins is a more self-possessed senator in 2016 than she was in, say, 2006. (It's difficult to envision her speaking this bluntly against a GOP colleague eight or ten years ago, for example.)
The steady erosion of the GOP's left flank also means that Collins has more status than ever with the centrist-enamored beltway press--something that at least has the potential to embolden her, especially when GOP goals clash with the interests of her Maine constituents (a dynamic that's currently playing out around Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.)
But there's a second, more fundamental set of reasons that the Bush-era parallel doesn't hold up: This time around, Collins didn't vote for the GOP president. In fact, she publicly repudiated him.
There hasn't been much post-election discussion of this salient fact in the Maine press. But one inevitable upshot is that the senior senator's pool of potential supporters--for a future run for Senate or any other office--has shifted permanently and perceptibly to the left: There are thousands of Trump-admiring GOP voters who simply won't forgive Collins for that act of apostasy. (Collins was famously booed at an October Trump rally in Maine when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) mentioned by her name).
An electoral coalition discernibly more liberal than it was prior to August 8, 2016 will be looking for Collins to live up to her moderate branding and be a check on Trump--and the constituent-minded senior senator may feel pressure to oblige.
The prospect of a Collins gubernatorial bid means that she'll be under more scrutiny from such voters than might normally be the case, at least until she rules out a run.
And finally, the advent of ranked choice voting--should it survive an expected legal challenge--means Collins will be incentivized even more than usual to avoid association with stances Mainers regard as extreme. That becomes doubly true if a primary challenge and/or tepid support on the right leads Collins to consider running as an independent, a prospect once considered far-fetched but that now seems increasingly likely.
To be clear, the early signs are mostly bad: Notwithstanding Collins's encouraging comments about the dangers of ACA repeal, she's been effusive in her support for the Sessions nomination; said glowing things about the prospect of Ben Carson heading HUD; and has remained silent about the prospect of climate change denier Scott Pruitt leading the EPA.
But as pressure ratchets up on Collins from all sides, there's at least some reason to think that the potential upside of checking GOP power could weigh more heavily in her calculus than it did the last time there was a Republican president with Republican legislative majorities.
Of course, how that calculus plays out will also depend on whether--and how loudly--those hoping Collins lives up to her moderate reputation are engaged in the political conversation.