Here’s why HRC’s endorsement of Collins won’t hurt Bellows much

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Reuters photo by Joshua Roberts.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Reuters photo by Joshua Roberts.

First came the union endorsements, now Republican Sen. Susan Collins is bucking conventional wisdom by earning the endorsement of the nation’s preeminent LGBT advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign.

HRC is the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocate in the country. It cited Collins’ support for ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which prevented openly gay and lesbian service in the military, and for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which prohibited workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The group announced its endorsement in a press release on Wednesday.

“Senator Susan Collins has played a pivotal role in advancing support for LGBT equality,” wrote HRC President Chad Griffin. “HRC is proud to stand with Senator Collins, and with allies on both sides of the aisle like her, because she firmly believes that every American should be evaluated based on their abilities, and not who they love.”

It’s not often that gay-rights advocates endorse Republicans, who traditionally have been more tepid in their support for LGBT equality than their counterparts across the aisle. Collins alluded to this discrepancy in her own written statement, which was also in the press release from HRC.

“HRC fully understands the need to have allies in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses, and I am proud of the reputation that I have established for working with my Senate colleagues of both parties in a bipartisan spirit for fairness and equality,” she wrote. “I look forward to our continued work together to bring people together and remove barriers that divide us.”

Shenna Bellows, pictured here in 2013. BDN file photo by Troy Bennett.

Shenna Bellows, pictured here in 2013. BDN file photo by Troy Bennett.

While the endorsement is noteworthy, and could translate to campaign donations or other work by HRC on behalf of Collins, it’s unlikely to sway too many voters in November.

That’s because there’s little doubt that Maine’s LGBT community knows Collins’ opponent, Democrat Shenna Bellows, is also a strong ally.

As executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, Bellows was a leader in the successful 2012 Mainers United for Marriage campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.

She even waited to wed her now-husband, Brandon Baldwin, until same-sex couples also had the right to marry in Maine, and has made support for LGBT equality — and civil rights generally — a cornerstone of her campaign.

On her website, Bellows writes: “All people deserve equal protection under the law, and we shouldn’t have to fight this out fifty times. I support a bill to extend full marriage equality and benefits to same-sex couples no matter what state they live in. I have proposed a national Human Rights Act, modeled on the Maine Human Rights Act, to extend non-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans in employment, housing, credit, public accommodation and educational opportunity. I’ll be a strong advocate for equality in the U.S. Senate.”

Collins campaign, however, said HRC’s endorsement shows that even the constituency most fervently courted by Bellows is not as united behind the Democratic candidate as she suggests. For the LGBT vote, said a spokesman, it’s still very much a two-way race.

HRC’s endorsement of Collins seems like a surprise at first. But it’s politically advantageous for the group to have as many allies in the Republican Party as possible.

Collins, who also opposed two bills backed by President George W. Bush to amend the U.S. Constitution to make same-sex marriage illegal, provides an important GOP ally under the dome — both in terms of the votes she’ll cast, and for casting a bipartisan sheen on the group’s advocacy work.

Bellows would obviously be an ally to HRC as well, but the “get” just isn’t as big.

UPDATE: After the endorsement was announced, Bellows said she’d continue to be an advocate for LGBT equality with or without HRC’s endorsement. She also criticized Collins for never publicly coming out in support of same-sex marriage.

“I believe in taking strong stances in favor of Constitutional protections and equal rights even when they’re unpopular,” Bellows said. “Remaining silent on some of the biggest civil rights issues of our generation, even after the voters have spoken, isn’t leadership, and it isn’t how Maine became one of the most inclusive states in the country for LGBT rights”

She added: “This is one endorsement in an election year. Mainers are more interested in both candidates’ records, and my record speaks for itself.”
UPDATE II: Not long after this blog post was published, Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins publicly indicated her support for same-sex marriage for the first time. She becomes the fourth GOP senator to do so.
Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.