Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wither Olympia Snowe?

Lots of talk this week about Olympia Snowe's future following polling that shows she'd be clobbered by a generic conservative in a primary, but remains popular among Maine Democrats.

Nick Beaudrot
and Chris Bowers are certain that a party-switch of some type is in Snowe's future, in time for her to avoid a GOP primary in 2012. Ezra Klein isn't quite as certain that she's toast in such a primary:
Snowe isn't up for reelection until 2012...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.
Seth Masket counters:
Voters, in general, have short memories. But party activists, the ones who reliably show up in primaries and raise money and volunteer their time for candidates, have extremely long memories. Three years is like three days.
I'm with Seth here, for the most part. Certainly, the groups that matter here are party elites, and I agree with Seth that they have long memories (and high levels of political information). I don't think it's certain that Snowe would lose a primary in 2012 -- but I think it's very likely that she'll draw a conservative challenge, and that beating back that challenge will be at best very, very difficult. Even if she wins, she could wind up damaged enough that she would be vulnerable in November; moreover, she might not be willing to cast the votes that it might take to win. Not everyone is as flexible as Arlen Specter.

Ezra has a second post up now on the odds of Snowe party-switching. Here, I think he makes some good points:
Snowe also has deep personal connections to the Republican Party: Her first husband was a Republican legislator in Maine's House of Representatives, and her current husband is the former Republican governor of Maine.
Contrast this with Arlen Specter, who was a Democrat before he was a Republican before he was a Democrat. Snowe has pretty deep roots within the GOP. It also may be -- and I don't know enough about her to know whether this is true -- that Snowe's deep roots within the party may prevent her from taking a primary challenge as seriously as outsiders might. That doesn't mean she's right; it just means that as she consults the people who she trusts about it, she's may encounter a lot of people who overestimate the strength of the traditional Maine Republican Party compared to insurgent conservatives. More generally, it's important to remember that these are individuals, and as much as it's helpful to map out the various incentives that exist, individual pols make idiosyncratic decisions on things such as running/not running.

But, back to incentives, one important name wasn't raised in any of the comments above about party-switching: Joe Sestak. Arlen Specter party-switched, and immediately became a mainstream liberal Democrat, but he still has drawn a serious primary challenge. Now, Snowe is different in lots of ways; Specter had a long career of annoying liberals before he switched, and unlike Specter, Snowe is well-liked by Dems pre-switch. However, it can't possibly be comforting to Snowe to know that switching doesn't guarantee her a free ride through the primary.

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