It's easy to see why the media has made Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the poster girl for the health care debate. She's got an appealing story -- she's a woman! an orphan! a young widow! She loves bright colors (good for TV), but isn't flashy and speaks with an authentic Maine accent. Plus it's a lot easier for sound bite-driven cable news to cover the "will she or won't she" storyline than to try and explain the intricacies of the "trigger option."
Snowe's national fame is matched only by adoration she receives in her home state. At an event at Colby College in Waterville last Friday night (disclaimer: I was not only in attendance but am also a graduate of Colby), Snowe's first stop in the state since casting her vote for the Finance Committee bill, the senator received multiple standing ovations.
To be sure, this was an academic (read: liberal) audience. But just being a "moderate" isn't what makes Snowe successful. Instead, she has followed a philosophy of legislating and campaigning pioneered by Margaret Chase Smith and taken up by every other successful Republican senator in the state since then. It's a philosophy that stresses country over party, and while Snowe may not have invented this philosophy, she has perfected it.
In Maine, being attacked by outside groups is more often a badge of honor than a cause for concern.
Maine is sparsely populated, a rural and isolated place. A long, dark drive from Portland to Waterville this weekend reminded me just how isolating it can feel. But it takes its role in defining the national debate very seriously. How else to explain how this tiny state has had some of the most influential senators of the last 50 years: Republicans Smith and William Cohen and Democrats Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell.
Bowdoin College professor Chris Potholm, who spoke at Colby last week, credits Smith with creating the "archetype" of the GOP Maine senator. Think, for example, of Smith's 1950 "Declaration Of Conscience," where she denounced the tactics of GOP colleague Joseph McCarthy, noting, "We are Republicans. But we are Americans first." Her essay could as easily have been written by Snowe. Take this passage, for example: "As members of the minority party, we do not have the primary authority to formulate the policy of our government. But we do have the responsibility of rendering constructive criticism, of clarifying issues, of allaying fears by acting as responsible citizens." In the House in 1974, Cohen followed in Smith's footsteps with his vote to impeach Richard Nixon. He was one of just seven Republicans to do so.
It's also important to note that Smith and Cohen were bucking their party at a time when Republicans were the norm in the northeast, not the outliers that they are today. In 1950, for example, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey were each represented by two Republican senators. In other words, party loyalty has never been as prized in Maine as it has been in other states. Loyalty to cause has carried much more weight.
Unlike other senators who like to boast of the spoils their seniority brings them (i.e., pork), Maine senators have counted on their constituents to be more interested in influence and integrity than new highway interchanges. This isn't to say that Mainers are ascetics or incorruptible. But it does mean that the red/blue debate isn't the only way Maine voters define themselves or want to have their senators defined.
Snowe and her home-state colleague Susan Collins are free of the "base politics" that plagues moderates in other states, where they have to worry about getting attacked from the right every primary season. Think, for example, of Arlen Specter's troubles winning in an increasingly conservative GOP primary.
And while voters in every state like to think they're impervious to outside influences, in Maine, being attacked by outside groups is more often a badge of honor than a cause for concern. Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group says more ads on health care have been run in Maine than anywhere else in the country. But while Portland TV stations are happy to accept the boatloads of cash coming in from national groups trying to influence Snowe and Collins, that doesn't mean their ads are hitting home.
"My instinct is that the ads are having absolutely no effect on either senator -- and that either would take voting against the swell of ads as a point of pride," said Colby professor of government Sandy Maisel. The flurry of ad activity is "getting Maine people to think about the issue," but they are competing against lots of other campaign activity in the state, most notably over the gay marriage debate, which Maisel said "may well lead people to stop viewing all of them."
Snowe's high profile has also raised expectations that she's speaking for the last of the "moderate" Republicans. Can she really vote against President Obama now? In her speech Friday night, Snowe lamented that "the sensible center is dissipating" -- a center that she and her predecessors have taken pride in defining for the state and the country for more than half a century. In the end, voting against those values will be more troublesome for Snowe than voting for a health care bill.