Olympia Snowe’s huge gift to Democrats

She’s let the Tea Party push her around, but she may have just ruined the GOP’s 2012 Senate hopes

Topics: War Room,

Olympia Snowe’s huge gift to DemocratsOlympia Snowe (Credit: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

For the past few years, Olympia Snowe seemed very interested in winning reelection to the the U.S. Senate as a Republican. The evidence: her voting record, which has shifted measurably to the right since the Tea Party crowd began making threats against ideologically impure GOP incumbents — and proving it could back them up.

As the New York Times noted on Sunday, Snowe is one of several Senate Republicans whose moderate, or at least pragmatic, streak has faded in the Tea Party era. From 2009 to 2010, her rating from the American Conservative Union jumped from 48 to 64 percent. And she’s gone from breaking with her party’s floor leader on 37 percent of votes in the last Congress to just 25 percent in the current one. And on the big votes, she’s gone from providing critical support for President Obama’s stimulus in early ’09 to helping to derail the Dream Act and joining the unanimous Republican opposition to his healthcare law.

This has coincided with the rise of Tea Party Republicanism. Nationally, angry conservatives scored a series of stunning primary season victories in 2010, ousting entrenched incumbents or beating heavily favored establishment figures in Utah, South Carolina, Colorado, Delaware and elsewhere. In Maine, Tea Party adherents produced a surprise of their own, rallying around the little-known, little-funded Paul LePage, who won a jarringly lopsided victory over a well-funded former Boston Red Sox part owner in that year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. LePage went on to win (barely) in the fall and has governed with the same blunt absolutism he showcased in the campaign.

Stylistically and ideologically, LePage and Snowe couldn’t be more different, but since ’10 she’s been the one moving in his direction, not the other way around. That’s as clear a sign as any of where the GOP base is today. And it seemed to be the clearest sign possible that Snowe was willing to do what it took to run for a fourth term as a Republican in 2012.

Which is what makes her retirement announcement this afternoon such a surprise. It’s not like her attempt to mollify the right was failing, or she was facing an impossible race. Despite plenty of bluster from Maine Tea Partyers, Snowe seemed on course to win the GOP nomination with ease. And even if the GOP road became impassible, the option of running as an independent was always there for her. No state in America is as friendly to independent candidates as Maine, which was governed by an independent (Angus King) from 1995 to 2003 and came within a point of electing another (Eliot Cutler) in ’10. It would have been a lot more messy than simply running on the GOP line again, but it would have been a viable path. This is not a Joe Lieberman situation; Snowe was not out of options.

You Might Also Like

But evidently she was out of patience with what her political life had become. In her statement this afternoon, Snowe said:

“Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term. So at this stage of my tenure in public service, I have concluded that I am not prepared to commit myself to an additional six years in the Senate, which is what a fourth term would entail.”

The charitable way to read this is that Snowe is tired of pretending to be more outraged by the Obama administration and Democrats in general than she actually is and that she’d rather retire than keep catering to the Tea Party. More realistically, she just honestly believes that D.C.’s current polarized condition is equally the fault of both parties. Again, if she really wanted to work across the aisle and with the White House more, she probably could have, because of the option of an independent reelection candidacy.

But even if she wasn’t particularly helpful to them these past few years, Snowe is doing Democrats a huge favor now. With Snowe in it, Democrats had virtually no chance of winning the Maine Senate race this year. Now they are likely to do so, given the state’s partisan bent. Two Democrats, Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud, represent the state in the U.S. House now and are potential candidates. So is John Baldacci, who was governor from 2003 to 2011, and Tom Allen, who gave up his House seat after six terms in 2008 to run unsuccessfully against Sen. Susan Collins. The race is not a gimme for Democrats, particularly with the possibility that an independent candidate (Cutler maybe?) could get in and draw substantial support. But it’s very, very winnable for them.

And a pickup in Maine would alter the playing field nationally, where Democrats can survive a net loss of three seats and still retain control of the chamber (if Obama is reelected, with Vice President Joe Biden breaking a 50-50 tie). The party is facing potential losses in Virginia, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico and elsewhere, with only two obvious pickup targets (Massachusetts and Nevada) — until now. If there is a second term for the Obama White House, Snowe may end up being a lot more helpful to it than she was in the first term.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>