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Will Olympia Snowe get Scozzafava'd?


New polling out of Maine shows that a solid 59 percent of likely Republican voters would back a primary challenge to Olympia Snowe. "This means that when you’re thinking about whether Snowe will support a bill or not, the issue ultimately comes down to not triggers versus non-triggers, or employer mandates versus free rider fees, but whether Snowe wants to remain a Republican or not," comments Matt Yglesias. "Based on this polling, a Snowe who votes for a comprehensive health care overhaul is basically not going to be viable as a GOP primary candidate."

I'm not so sure. Snowe isn't up for reelection until 2012. This polling shows that in 2009, at a moment of maximal heterodoxy, Snowe isn't popular among her state's Republican voters. But if she shapes up in 2011 and really nails the Obama administration? Hard to say. I can think of a lot of senators who have lost reelection in recent years. I can't think of any who lost because of a vote they cast three years before the campaign.

The flip side of this is that you'd think senators would amass radically different voting records in the first year or two of their terms, and slowly come into alignment with their state as they approach reelection. I'm not aware of much evidence that this happens, and I'm certainly not seeing any in this debate. That may mean that voters are actually pretty good at picking politicians who represent them or that politicians are scared of doing things that will trigger reprisals from institutional actors with longer memories (like the Club for Growth) or that politicians have firm ideologies that they're not particularly interested in betraying. Or maybe some combination of the three. But I'd be very careful with any polls that use a 2009 survey to project the fortunes of a 2012 candidate.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 10, 2009; 6:03 PM ET
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I remember a chart in the Oregonian during the last campaign cycle showing Sen. Smith's partisan voting record per year. I think it had the first few years being very Republican and the final year being very moderate, with this pattern repeating every cycle.

I don't know about any more comprehensive studies, though I'd bet they're out there.

Posted by: goinupnup | November 10, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

The dilemma for Snowe of course is that she has competing impulses here.

First, from a purely political standpoint she has a problem either way she votes. She helps herself for the General Election vs. any potential Democratic challenger by favoring Health Care Reform as that would be the move favored by the great majority of her constituents and would make it more difficult for Democrats to mount a strong challenge. However, by doing so she also makes herself vulnerable to a primary challenge since the majority of the shrunken group of Maine Republicans who are likely to vote in a primary largely oppose Health Care Reform. So politically, she is basically damned either way. If she favors reform, which it appears in her heart she does, she invites a primary challenge. If she opposes reform, she is likely to be targeted by Democrats in a state trending Democratic.

Beyond the purely political considerations are the policy considerations and Snowe's personal vision of her role, or job, as a Senator. She has appeared, throughout her career in both the House and Senate, to be policy-oriented, a committed problem-solver who exhibits an occasional maverick streak but is basically a conscientious public servant committed to doing what she deems to be best for her state and the country.

Is her vision of "correct" public policy shaped by occasional ideological considerations? Of course it is, but that does not mean that Snowe would be generally viewed as an ideologue. She often appears personally cross-pressured if you examine her voting record closely. She has exhibited a libertarian, small-government impulse at times, but that appears to be tempered by a real understanding of the struggles of ordinary citizens who are not wealthy, or advantaged by the political and economic system. Her efforts to reconcile these competing internal impulses results in a centrist voting record. It is a mistake to say that Snowe is merely a non-ideological moderate. In fact, review of her voting record and statements through the years indicates that her personal political philosophy in fact combines multiple ideological strands which may be internally contradictory, and she is constantly striving to balance those. Combine that with her basic commitment to satisfying her constituents, and she winds up a "moderate."

It is easy for Snowe to be a liberal on social issues because her libertarian impulses coincide with her progressive impulses of advancing the interests of the societal underdog. But on an issue like health care and some other economic issues, her libertarian impulses contradict her progressive impulses, which is why even the most seemingly minute policy details truly matter to her.

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | November 10, 2009 7:21 PM | Report abuse

I had trouble reconciling my impression of Snowe as a favorite schmoozer of powerful lobbyists with ohiocitizen's take. So I went through her stances at:

I didn't come up with anything to change my opinion that she doesn't care about poor people.

Posted by: bmull | November 10, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse

Given her policy positions, the only issues she'll ever have a chance of "nailing" Obama on are the budget and taxes. The budget is deeply unsexy, she voted against it this year and got nothing out of it, and she voted for most of Bush's bloated budgets and supplementals. What's more, like Maverick McCain, she voted against Bush's 2003 tax cuts. She could conceivably try to nail Obama for the continued jobless recovery, but she voted FOR the stimulus. She'll wait to see how the midterms pan out, but if her party picks up even a few seats with the Rubios, Toomeys, and Ovid Lamontagnes of the world, she's probably toast as a Republican.

But I DON'T think she becomes a Democrat. She'll pull a Modified Reverse Lieberman: many months before the primary, she'll announce she's leaving the Republican Party to become an Independent. She may even continue to caucus with the GOP. Not only will the declaration of ideological independence fit her image to a tee and play well Down East, she will have a very strong argument that her voting record most closely tracks the preferences of Maine's largest voting bloc--"Unenrolled" voters, or what the rest of us call "Independents."

Posted by: andrewlong | November 10, 2009 10:28 PM | Report abuse

I would also support the view that she may leave the Republican Party as an Independent and join the Democratic Senate Caucus, but run for reelection as an Independent, not as a Democrat. I don't see her ever running as a Democrat, though she has to be in one Caucus or another for Committee purposes, so she could conceivably caucus with the Democrats. If she stands outside the Caucus structure in the Senate, she has no personal protection with regard to seniority or Committee assignments.

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | November 10, 2009 10:58 PM | Report abuse

And examining her voting record through the years, I would challenge the view that she does not vote with the interests of the economically disadvantaged, because she often does.

Snowe is clearly less conservative than at least one Democrat----Ben Nelsen---and arguably no more conservative than either Blanche Lincoln or Mary Landrieu. In fact, I'd prefer Snowe to either of them as I think she is more intellectually honest and predictable than either of them.

In fact, now that we are onto discussing the voting records of female Senators, has anyone ever noticed that unlike in the House where female Representatives tend to be clustered at the left and right poles, with relatively few from either party in the ideological middle, female Senators are much more likely, on a proportionate basis, to be centrist than are their male colleagues. That is the opposite of the House.

Among the 17 female Senators, NONE is far-right. Many of the House Republican women are extremely conservative or on the far right fringe. The most conservative woman in the Senate is Kay Bailey Hutchison who is a mainstream conservative, but by no means extreme like Foxx or Bachmann, or even Blackburn, in the House. The other three Republican women Senators have voting records that rank as either moderate-to-conservative (Murkowski), or moderate (Collins and Snowe).

Among the 13 Democratic Senators, the only one who might be reasonably characterized as far-left is Boxer. Landrieu, Lincoln, and McCaskill have distinctly moderate voting records. Since Shaheen, Gillibrand, and Hagan are freshman Senators, it is too early to offer a firm conclusion on them, but they appear at this point to settle comfortably into the moderate-to-liberal grouping that also includes Cantwell and Feinstein. Gillibrand's House voting record would have to be classified as either moderate-to-liberal or moderate. There are a group of female Democrats who would clearly be classified as solid liberals, which would include Mikulski, Murray, Klobuchar, and Stabenow. Then there is Boxer who is clearly the female Senator farthest left. But there are at least a couple male Senators who are clearly to even Boxer's left.

So on the whole the women of the Senate tend to represent a much narrower range of the ideological spectrum than do their male Senate colleagues.

Posted by: OHIOCITIZEN | November 10, 2009 11:20 PM | Report abuse

What is so sad and disturbing about our political parties is that you are required to support party stances rather than consider what is best for the American people.
What bothers me about Snowe is that she favors trigger, which supports, subsidizes the insurance companies, gives them a chance to do what they should have been doing all along.
I do not want the insurance companies remaining in control in any way, shape for form.

Posted by: kathlenec | November 11, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

This moderately conservative Republican thinks that Senator Snowe has a laudable record as a critical thinker and thoughtful policymaker. She should continue to have a home in the Republican Party and in the US Senate.

Posted by: chrojo01 | November 11, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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