Former President George W. Bush on Friday backed Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine in his first public endorsement of the 2020 election cycle.
Bush has largely stayed out of the political fray since he left the White House in 2009, and his endorsement is a welcome boost for Collins, who is waging her most difficult campaign yet as she seeks a fifth term. The centrist senator has become a top target for Democrats, who cast her as an enabler of President Donald Trump's agenda, even though she said she votes against him more than any other GOP senator and distances herself from his more controversial statements and policies.
"She's honest. She's forthright. She brings dignity into a world that has gotten really ugly. The political world is uglier than I can ever remember it," Bush said after he and his wife, Laura, had lunch with Collins at the family's summer home overlooking the ocean. Bush called her "smart and capable," "very influential" and "pretty darned independent."
Laura Bush said she has been "shocked" by attack ads targeting Collins. "I don't like the way the ads are portraying her because I know they're not correct, and I also just don't like that kind of campaign," she said. "So it gave me really an extra reason to stand up and speak for Susan Collins."
Collins said she was happy "on a personal level" for the backing. "I have great admiration for President Bush and Laura Bush. To have their support means the world to me," she said afterward.
National attention on the race has helped Collins' opponent, Democrat Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, amass a sizable cash advantage.
The nod from the former president, whose politics appear centrist by Trump-era standards, may nudge some traditional Republicans into Collins' corner. Trump has not endorsed the Maine senator, whose race is among a handful critical to Republicans' hopes of keeping control of the Senate, where they have a 53-47 advantage.
Collins, meanwhile, has not said whether she intends to vote for Trump.
The endorsement is a rare move for Bush. While he has done some private fundraisers for candidates since leaving office, this is his first show of public support for a candidate this year, his office said.
Collins worked with Bush when he was president and served as the first chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Back then, Collins served alongside another Republican from Maine, Olympia Snowe, who has since retired from the Senate. Collins is now the only Republican member of Congress from New England.
Collins has been popular in Maine, but Democrats were incensed when she voted for Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court and for Trump's tax breaks.
Democrats view unseating Collins this fall as a key to retaking control of the Senate, and Gideon drew early support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Gideon already has raised more than $24 million, compared with more than $16 million for Collins. That doesn't include $3.8 million for Gideon that was crowdsourced by critics of Collins during the Kavanaugh debate.
Gideon also has picked up a number of endorsements from groups that previously backed Collins: the Human Rights Campaign and the Maine State Council of Machinists, for example. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which was neutral in Collins' 2014 race, is backing Gideon.
Bush's family has long had a compound in Kennebunkport, where his father, former President George H.W. Bush, spent much of the year in a stone-and-shingle house until his death in 2018.
George and Laura Bush now reside in the main house. This is their second time spending the summer there, Laura Bush said.