What Does Olympia Snowe’s Retirement Mean for Republicans?

Daniel Doherty

3/2/2012 12:45:00 PM - Daniel Doherty

Earlier this week, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) surprised party officials and Republicans alike when she unexpectedly announced she would not seek reelection. After representing the people of Maine for 17 years in the United States Senate, she ultimately decided upon reflection that Congress was simply too partisan for her to govern effectively in a fourth term. Consequently, she penned an op-ed in the Washington Post outlining some of the factors that shaped her decision:

One difficulty in making the Senate work the way it was intended is that America’s electorate is increasingly divided into red and blue states, with lawmakers representing just one color or the other. Before the 1994 election, 34 senators came from states that voted for a presidential nominee of the opposing party. That number has dropped to just 25 senators in 2012. The result is that there is no practical incentive for 75 percent of the senators to work across party lines.

The great challenge is to create a system that gives our elected officials reasons to look past their differences and find common ground if their initial party positions fail to garner sufficient support. In a politically diverse nation, only by finding that common ground can we achieve results for the common good. That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future.

For change to occur, our leaders must understand that there is not only strength in compromise, courage in conciliation and honor in consensus-building — but also a political reward for following these tenets. That reward will be real only if the people demonstrate their desire for politicians to come together after the planks in their respective party platforms do not prevail.

Although the approval ratings of Congress have reached double digits for the first time in nearly a year, Snowe’s retirement seems to vindicate the notion that Republicans and Democrats are incapable of bipartisanship. After all, she is not citing, say, family or health reasons as the principle motivation for her retirement. Instead, the key – and perhaps only – reason is because members of both chambers refuse to work across party lines. As she explains, the failure of members of Congress to pass a budget in over 1000 days, for example, is deeply frustrating and may have wider implications -- namely, concerned citizens with an interest in politics might think twice before running for elected office.

But equally as important, what does her retirement mean for Republicans? While it is almost certain that she would have won reelection – and her exit will make it more difficult for the GOP to retake the Senate in 2012 – the Maine electorate has a penchant for supporting Republicans. Indeed, Maine voters have elected and reelected Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe – both moderates – the last three election cycles and even chose a Tea Party-backed candidate, Paul R. LePage, as their governor in 2010.

Despite her popularity at home, however, Senator Snowe has been criticized by her Republican colleagues for supporting legislation that betrays conservative principles. Nevertheless, by voting against the Patient and Affordable Care Act, Snowe played a pivotal role in the battle over health care in 2010. Thus, if Republicans lose her seat next fall, the chances of repealing Obamacare (a law that is killing jobs and placing onerous burdens on American businesses), will be that much more difficult even if Republicans take back the White House.

As the most liberal Republican in the United States Senate, I suppose conservatives nationwide will not lament her departure. Still, with dozens of Democrats eyeing her vacant Senate seat, Republicans have lost a crucial ally in what many consider to be the most consequential issue of our time.