Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Snowe Job

I've been following politics in America for a long time, and I have to admit that I never saw Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's decision not to seek a fourth term coming.

I'm not alone in that. A lot of people are surprised, but I suppose none of us should be. Snowe is, after all, 65 years old. She would be in her 70s when her seat will be up for election again. She is at the age that most Americans have been conditioned to expect to be retired — even though, given the state of the economy, few can expect to retire.

But Snowe has spent one–third of a century in Congress — and she is the only woman to have served in both chambers of a state legislature and both chambers of the U.S. Congress in a career that spans four decades.

She is also something of a dinosaur — a centrist in an increasingly conservative Republican Party. That fact has made her a true swing vote, courted by both sides on many issues.

Apparently, though, the obvious polarization in our national politics has played a significant role in her decision not to remain in Washington.

"I am a fighter at heart, and I am well prepared for the electoral battle," she said. "Unfortunately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term."

From everything I have read, I have the impression that Snowe is popular with her constituents. In three previous Senate elections, her share of the vote went up each time. She was elected with 60% in the Republican year of 1994, re–elected with 69% in 2000 and re–elected again with 74% in the Democrat year of 2006.

My understanding is that she got consistently high marks from her constituents, even though the state has been trending Democrat in national elections, and she almost certainly would have won a fourth term if she sought it.

It would have been good news for Republicans if she had run for re–election — not because modern Republicans could count on her to vote the party line but because her withdrawal takes away what was probably a safe seat for the GOP and turns it into a tossup.

Things are complicated by the calendar. The deadline for gathering enough signatures to be on the ballots in Maine's primaries is March 15, as Matthew Gagnon observes in the Bangor (Maine) Daily News.

"This is not something that can be done by a political novice in two weeks," writes Gagnon, "indeed it is a difficult task for established figures."

Chaos can be expected, and that's bad news for Republicans, who need only a net gain of four seats (three if the Republicans win the presidency) to seize control of the U.S. Senate.

They were counting, I am sure, on retaining Snowe's seat. Because the Democrats were so successful in 2006, Republicans have only 10 seats to defend in the 2012 cycle — and, until yesterday, eight were considered reasonably safe (including Snowe's). Democrats had (and still have) good reason to be concerned about six of their seats, possibly more, but they have more breathing room now.

As Stuart Rothenberg observes, Snowe's decision "places [her seat] firmly in the center of the fight for the Senate majority." He rates it a tossup — a prudent position to take, given that no nominees will be chosen until the primaries on June 12.

Larry Sabato's "Crystal Ball" contends that the seat now leans to the Democrats — even though the candidates for the office are not yet known.

It is, at the very least, something of a field leveler. If Democrats can win Snowe's seat, that makes the mountain that Republicans must climb that much steeper.

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