Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Snowe and 2012

Jonathan Chait notes Olympia Snowe's poor polling numbers among Maine Republicans, and thinks about her future:
Obviously the landscape will be different in 2012. But different how? On the one hand, the GOP has lurched sharply right, and activists will interpret the inevitable gains as a vindication of that strategy. On the other hand, if Republicans blow a few races because they nominated Sharron Angle type candidates, the message may filter down to the base that always nominating a purist conservative is not a cost-free approach.
I think it would take quite a reversal -- not impossible, but not likely -- for Republican activists to learn that message from 2010.  Let's see...we have purist candidates nominated in contested primaries in KY, UT, NV, FL and AK; depending on how you read it in CO and WI; and perhaps in DE and NH.  One (in Utah) is certain to be elected.  Suppose that purist candidates cost Republicans two or three Senate seats (about the maximum plausible number).  If it turns out to be a good or a very good year for Republicans, they're going to believe that everything they did was electorally smart -- sure, they'll say if pressed, we might have added Delaware if Castle had been nominated, but he wouldn't have voted with us anyway and besides we won a landslide, so why are you questioning our strategy?  On the other hand, if things go the Dems way, odds are that for every Rand Paul who loses there will also be a Carly Fiorina and a Dino Rossi who also lost, and it won't be obvious at all to Tea Partiers that extremist candidates were responsible.  No, what it will take will be a less-than-expected win for Republicans (so they're looking for an explanation of failure, not success) combined with very selective losses by purist candidates. Remember, in general elections candidates are hardly the only important factor -- they matter, especially at the extremes, but they're not as important as, say, the partisan composition of the electorate.  So it's likely that some of the GOP purists will win even if they aren't nearly as strong general election candidates as those they defeated in the primaries would have been.

So what could save Olympia Snowe?  It's possible that in 2012 activists will be focused on a presidential nomination battle and will put less energy into Congressional primaries.  And, of course, you can't beat something with nothing; it's always possible that she just won't draw an opponent.  It's also possible that, even though Chait is surely correct to say he can't "see how her ideological bona fides could possibly be solid enough to withstand a real primary challenge," that perhaps with a two-year head start it's possible for an incumbent to build personal relationships with conservatives strong enough to get them to ignore ideological deviations.  Possible, but I wouldn't want to stake my career on it.  On the other hand, it's not as if the latest examples of party-switching have worked out all that well (just ask Arlen Specter).  Of course, it's a long time from now, and all sorts of unpredictable changes could happen, but it's hard to see a lot of good options available right now for Snowe if she wants to stay in the Senate beyond 2012.


  1. Although Maine is a closed primary state, you can walk in, change your registration, vote, then change it back - all in one visit. That is Snowe's only hope (and it's pretty slim).

    Unlike Collins, Snowe has a hard time talking one way and voting another. And the dedicated voters (the ones who turn out for primaries) around here tend to be oblivious to what's actually going on nationally. So I suspect she's toast in 2012.

  2. Snowe will be re-nominated if necessary, and then re-elected, by Democratic women voters, who have provided her with her margin of victory in the past.

    Safest seat in the Senate.

  3. if things go the Dems way

    There is a lot of ambiguity packed in that qualifier. Nobody's expecting the Dems to gain seats in either chamber. We can agree that if Republicans gain no more than 20 seats in the House--which would normally be significant--it would be perceived as devastating for them, due to the much higher expectations. But what if they gain something like 30 or 35 seats, putting them close to a House takeover but not quite crossing the line? Democrats would breathe a sigh of relief, and Republicans would be disappointed, but it wouldn't necessarily send a strong message to the party establishment that their strategy was counterproductive. More than likely, you'd have both parties reading the results as favorable to themselves.

  4. I think that it's extremely unlikely that Snowe "just won't draw an opponent" in the 2012 GOP primary. If anything, her best bet is that she draws a lot of truly radical opponents, who split the vote!

  5. I agree with Kylopod. Anon -- you never know. It takes someone willing to step up. Most of the TP candidates this year were real pols...O'Donnell was the nominee in the past, Rubio of course was a major player, even Sharron Angle has won an election before. It's possible a complete unknown could take down Snowe (and even there, someone would have to actually choose to run and then campaign), but it's a lot more likely with a real candidate.

  6. JB: I would be careful about retrospective analysis of who is and is not a "real candidate." I doubt that you would say that the mere fact of having won a (largely futile) party nomination in the past would count had O'Donnell lost. Rubio is in a different class than some of these others, who would not have been rated as credible challengers in 2009.

    I am admittedly not an expert on Maine pols, but is there no one who has ever held office or received a party nomination(!) sympathetic to the Tea Party movement? Is the state that devoid of political ambition? If so, then Mainers are a distinct breed.


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