Short Relief: She's no party animal, but Snowe will be missed

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I was surprised by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s announcement she would not seek re-election. I heard the rumor last year that she might not seek a fourth term. But when she declared, I figured she was all in, and I was with her.

I made a modest contribution and attended a fundraiser in Falmouth where she and Jock mingled comfortably with supporters. As always, when I got the
chance to say hello, she made me feel as though she’d be happy to chat for hours.

I was not alone in my surprise. Pretty much everyone seems to have been caught off-guard, including her staff. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky must be particularly upset to see Republican chances of gaining control of the Senate diminish now that a secure Republican seat is up for grabs.

It certainly throws the local political scene into turmoil, as everyone reassesses their situation. Andrew Ian Dodge must regret having dropped out of the Republican primary, while Scott D’Amboise, who stayed in, must be shocked by his new-found, front-runner status.

It won’t last long. There are too many prominent people interested in this once-in-a-generation opportunity. Former Snowe staffer, Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, is shifting his sights from the 2nd Congressional District to the U.S. Senate. That creates some room for another Republican to seek that House seat.

Likewise, the prospects of Democrats Matt Dunlap, state Rep. John Hinck, or
state Sen. Cynthia Dill becoming the next senator from Maine look brighter, at least until someone better known and financed, like former Gov. John Baldacci or U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, jumps in. If Pingree bumps up to a run for Senate, the only Republican in the 1st District race, Pat Calder, looks better, though he probably won’t be alone for long.

And then there are the independents. Former Gov. Angus King sounds like he’s interested. Eliot Cutler initially said he was not and now says he is. It makes for a lot of moving parts.

In her announcement, Snowe expressed confidence that she would have won the nomination and re-election if she had stayed in the race. I have no doubt that she would. I am less certain whether she felt confident of it.

Moderates are an endangered species these days. They face unprecedented opposition. Several, like Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Kay Hutchinson of Texas, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and John Webb of Virginia, are bowing out of the Senate.

While I was surprised by Snowe’s decision, I was not surprised by her reasoning. Ideologically, she has remained a moderate while her party moved to the right. Temperamentally, she is low key while others have become more strident. As she explained, she finds the current political environment
inhospitable. She no longer sees a place for herself in the Senate.

Government in general, and the Senate in particular, have become so polarized with shrill partisan antagonism that a moderate like Snowe cannot expect to accomplish much worthwhile. The polarization extends to within the party, where Republicans would rather attack each other over matters of doctrine than come together to elect someone who can make progress on issues of the moment.

I am sorry to see Snowe go. I was comfortable with her positions on the issues and proud to have her voice represent my state. She stuck to her principles, and for better and worse, she didn’t use her seniority and swing-vote position to bring home a lot of political pork. She broke with her party to support the
stimulus, to oppose defending marriage in the constitution, and to support aspects of health-care reform.

However, I am also sorry that Snowe didn’t leave the Republican party in a better position as she exits. I believe in political parties. I think that they are essential to well-ordered democracy. They give politicians an opportunity
to formulate their positions on the issues, learn how to compromise, form coalitions and build the majorities necessary to govern. Politicians cannot wait until they get elected before developing those values and skills.

If Snowe had made her decision earlier, it would have given another Republican more time to get up to speed. As it is, they have less than two weeks to gather the 2,000 signatures required to get on the primary ballot.

Or, she could have resigned effective immediately and given the governor the opportunity to name an interim senator who could have used the appointment to establish themselves in preparation for the general election.

Or, she could have waited until after the March 15 petition filing deadline, which might have given the governor the opportunity to call a special primary with more lead time.

But Olympia was not a huge party animal. She had her own organization and kept some distance from the party. On the other hand, she supported Republicans in her way, by attending party events, sending representatives to meetings, and campaigning for local candidates on the ticket.

In her announcement, she said that we need to change the way that we govern and that she saw greater opportunity to work for that change outside the Senate. I am not sure what she means, but I have my doubts about a third-way, no-labels, Americans Elect effort. If you can’t moderate from inside, I am not sure how you can moderate from outside. I think that the
country and parties need more moderates to get involved.

It’s not difficult. Take the Portland Republican City Committee. There aren’t many barriers to entry. All you have to do is be a registered Republican residing in Portland and show up at a meeting. Last I looked, there were about
10,000 of us, but attendance at monthly meetings averages 15. I became chairman the first year I started attending meetings. If moderates don’t get involved, then extremists dominate.

I don’t begrudge Snowe her retirement. She has served Maine and the country long and well, and I thank her for doing so.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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