After Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's surprise defection last week, some Democrats have let their thoughts roam to another tantalizing possibility: What if Maine's moderate Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, could be enticed to jump ship?
The possibility was not lost on respondents in National Journal's Insiders Poll last week.
"If I were them, I would be kissing the feet of two women from Maine," one Democratic strategist advised the GOP.
Snowe may have fueled some of this speculation herself, lamenting Specter's departure in the New York Times: "We can't continue to fold our philosophical tent into an umbrella under which only a select few are worthy to stand."
But Democrats' daydreaming ignores a key fact: Senators have historically been compelled to split with their allies for a narrow range of reasons. Since 1890, just 21 senators have left their parties, and only three have swapped an "R" for a "D" -- Specter, Colorado's Henry Teller in 1901 and Oregon's Wayne Morse in 1955. (Jim Jeffords of Vermont caucused with the Democrats after leaving the GOP in 2001, but was officially an independent.) Most of the turncoats in this exclusive club switched affiliations either to make a political statement (opposition to the Gold Standard, for instance), to win an election or to escape ideological shifts within their party.
Before defecting, Specter faced a brutal primary against former Rep. Pat Toomey in 2010, with the senator trailing the former Club for Growth president by double digits in most polls.
Snowe and Collins, by contrast, aren't up for re-election until 2012 and 2014, respectively. Not that it really matters: Both have won re-election by successively larger margins. Snowe won with a whopping 74 percent of the vote in 2006, up from 69 percent in 2000. Collins prevailed last fall with 61.5 percent, up from 58 percent in 2002, even in the face of Barack Obama's landslide victory in Maine.
And while Specter may be freed to vote his conscience now that he doesn't have to worry about a Republican primary, Snowe and Collins don't have that problem: Neither faced primary opponents last time out.
Then there's the issue of demographics. Specter cited the Keystone State's slow but steady leftward shift as another reason for his switch: Some 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans changed their registration to become Democrats in 2008 alone.
Maine also saw an increase in Democratic registration and a decrease in Republican registration last cycle, though less pronounced than in Pennsylvania. But party ID numbers don't matter as much when you're winning 74 percent of the vote in a state that is one-third registered Democrats.
All but assured of re-election, Collins and Snowe stand to lose far more than they would gain from any potential defection. Though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told Specter he would retain his committee seniority, he appears to have changed his mind, and Specter lost his perch as ranking member on the Judiciary Committee just as Obama is set to pick a new Supreme Court justice.
Collins is the ranking member on Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and Snowe is the ranking member on the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee. Reid could promise to give them committee chairmanships, but they'd have reason to be skeptical.
Politically, Snowe and Collins also derive special influence from being moderate Republicans in an opposition party that has moved to the right. Each may find it preferable to remain a swing vote that needs wooing rather than a center-right Republican-cum-Democrat who causes headaches for her caucus. Specter has already discovered the hard way that life on the other side of the aisle isn't all sunshine and rainbows; the newest Democrat had to perform hasty mea culpa this week for suggesting that he was pulling for Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in his stalemate with Democrat Al Franken in Minnesota.
Life for defectors has often been tricky. When Morse left the GOP to become an independent in the early '50s (before finally becoming a Democrat), he couldn't decide where to sit on the Senate floor. He eventually resorted to setting up a folding chair in the aisle between the Republican and Democratic sections. At the end of the day, Snowe and Collins are probably best served by sitting tight in their current (non-folding) seats.
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