The latest polls show Olympia Snowe’s health-care vote hurts her with Republicans in Maine. The right wing is stepping up pressure. But the GOP’s last moderate is a tough target.
Olympia Snowe is starring as Hamlet these days, captivating and frustrating audiences in Washington and across the country. She helps the health-care reform bill make it out of the Senate Finance Committee one moment, only to announce she can’t support a robust public option the next. Conservative groups are puzzled by the performance, and uncertain how to proceed. Should they recruit a primary challenger, and force an ideological purity test, as they did in Pennsylvania? Or make peace with the independent Snowe, knowing her brand of Republicanism suits the voters of Maine just fine?
“Every conservative group needs to contact everyone they know in Maine and say this is a mistake,” David A. Keene, the leader of the American Conservative Union, told The Daily Beast. “One gets the impression that she is nervous about what she has done.”
Snowe won’t face Maine voters until 2012. But that hasn’t stopped some on the right from pranking her to ratchet up the political pressure—and remind her that conservatives don’t care for her maverick ways. With the prodding of Erick Erickson at RedState.com, 115 pounds of rock salt arrived at the senator’s Portland, Maine, office this week—aimed at melting Snowe’s resolve. A press representative for Snowe told the Bangor Daily News that all salt packages will be donated to a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen.
• Paul Begala on Snowe’s vote.A more serious sign of potential trouble: A poll taken last week suggests that there’s a growing dissatisfaction among Republican voters in Maine with Snowe’s performance. Only 45 percent of Republicans surveyed by Public Policy Polling said they approve of the job she is doing after her support for the Senate Finance Committee’s health-care bill. Seventy percent of Maine Democrats see Snowe favorably.
The numbers have left the poll’s author wondering whether Snowe, who won reelection by a resounding margin in 2006, will be so secure next time around.
“With less than half of Republicans approving of Olympia Snowe now, it’s going to be interesting to see if she’s challenged from the right come 2012,” said Dean Debnam, the founder and CEO of Public Policy Polling, in a press release. “Is she going to be pushed into a corner the way Arlen Specter was, where her only prospect for political survival is a party switch? It’s certainly something political observers across the country will be watching.”
Conservative strategists contacted by The Daily Beast said they are.
“Every conservative group needs to contact everyone they know in Maine and say this is a mistake,” David A. Keene, the leader of the American Conservative Union, told The Daily Beast.
“One gets the impression that she is nervous about what she has done,” Keene added. “The real key is not to have her called by 8,000 people from Texas or Iowa, but to have her called by 2,000 people from Maine.”
David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth, said that because of Maine’s small size—the state’s population is half of Chicago’s—a viable conservative candidate to challenge Snowe shouldn’t be all that hard to find.
“It could be somebody from the private sector—a small businessman who looks at the insanity of what’s going on in Washington. We’ve seen more people that have that attitude. That’s one example. It could be a city councilman. It’s not that large of a state. It’s not that big of a jump to get yourself exposed in the primary electorate,” Keating said.
Ron Jordan of Freedom Works, the organization instrumental in planning the "tea party" protest this summer, said that his group has 2,500 members in the state of Maine, and they will continue to try to augment conservative grassroots efforts there.
“For our guys in Maine, their senators aren’t representing their view points. They’re wobbly on health care, if not going south quickly. On cap and trade, we’re very worried about what they might do about that,” Jordan said.
Freedom Works promises to be more involved in the state in 2010 than any previous election and hopes to build from there.
But folks rooting for Snowe to fall should not hold their breath. Party affiliation has never been especially important to Mainers, who have elected independent governors in the past and may elect another one in 2010. And less than a third of those polled thought Snowe should switch parties and join Arlen Specter as a Democrat. Voters feel a special kinship to Snowe, who was orphaned when she was a young girl—and widowed, when her first husband died in a car accident when she was in her mid-20s. That tragic past, and her lifetime of service to the state, helped form a bond with the electorate that would be tough for any challenger to break. And despite the conservative agitating, there is no credible threat to Snowe in sight.
The same can be said of the state’s junior senator, Susan Collins—who has also hinted that she may support the Democrats’ health-care bill. Collins won reelection handily against a formidable opponent, Democrat Tom Allen, last year—despite a Democratic surge prompted by Barack Obama’s coattails. They may be the Senate’s last real moderate Republicans, but it does not appear that they are going away any time soon—despite the GOP’s shift to the right nationwide.
“There is a very conservative group of Republicans in the state, either on social or fiscal issues, who don’t like what these senators are doing, but they’re the minority in Maine. Politically, the senators don’t need to care,” said L. Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
So should conservatives bother pouring more than some salt into the state?
“I wouldn’t advise it to everybody. I think they would be wasting their resources. If you look at the senators, if you look at the mind-set of a traditional Mainer, they are very independent in their thinking—not prone to have people tell them what to do,” Scott Kauffman, the former vice chairman of the Maine Republican Party said.
Maisel, the director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby, put it succinctly: “Stay out of our state….We’ll take care of our own.”
American Conservative Union’s Keene said he recognizes that Snowe's removal won’t be easy.
“They live in a different universe up there,” Keene said. “Have you been there lately? It’s a different universe entirely.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.