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.
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.