COMMENTARY | If an election were held today, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, would win it hands down. But thanks to the primary process, she'd never have a chance. That's the real reason she retired.
Folks claimed to be "stunned" by her announcement, but it isn't too surprising to anyone who studies American electoral politics. It's a wonder there are any moderates left in Congress. And we have the polarization of political parties to blame.
Here's how it works: Moderates have been squeezed out, not by the American people, but by the extremes controlling who gets on the ballot in the first place. In the last general election, Snowe won with 74 percent of the vote and had raised $3.3 million from supporters. She had 34 years of congressional service. But it wouldn't have been enough.
Why Republicans Would Have Booted Snowe
Republicans gush about how great Snowe was, but the conservatives had their knives out for her. The PPP polling service had Republicans opposed to her 46 percent to 40 percent and she drew a primary challenger. In the same poll, Republicans said they preferred a conservative challenger 59 percent to 31 percent. That spelled doom for Snowe, no matter how much the pundits said the state liked her. Even though independents like her by an 18-point margin, they have little say in the primary.
Sure Snowe might have held on, but she would have been bloodied and bankrupted in the process, leaving an easy path for the Democratic Party challenger. Just ask former Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, overwhelmingly re-elected in 2004, "primaried" in 2010 and blown out in the general.
Why Democrats Would Have Booted Snowe
Someone in the TPM article suggested Snowe switch parties. After all, that PPP poll showed her with overwhelming Democrat favorability. But just ask Arlen Specter how well that party switch went in 2009. The next year, he too was "primaried," defeated by a more liberal challenger. And Democrats still can't figure out why Snowe, Susan Collins and other moderates don't switch sides.
Even some conservative Senate stalwarts like Orrin Hatch and Richard Lugar are being fiercely primaried by ultra-conservatives. Some of those Maine Democrats who jumped into the race would have loved to "primary" her.
And it isn't just Democrats. Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith switched sides and was never seen again, as conservative challenger Mo Brooks ousted him from office. Conservatives still don't see why some moderate Democrats don't come over to their side. I don't see why they don't get it.
Could Snowe Have Won As An Independent?
Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman got "primaried" by Ned Lamont, yet he won as an independent in Connecticut. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski did the same after she lost the Republican nomination to a tea party zealot named Joe Miller. And newer PPP polls show Snowe might have won another term that way. "Might" is the optimal term.
Lieberman was lucky the GOP nominee's campaign imploded after a series of gambling scandals. Murkowski had to run as a write-in and only pulled that off by the skin of her teeth. Maybe if Snowe was lucky, she could do it like these two long shots.
But for every Murkowski, there's a Charlie Crist, a moderate who failed after getting primaried by Marco Rubio. For every Lieberman, there's an Albert Wynn, the Maryland congressman ousted in a primary, who had to end his career. And the independent (Eliot Cutler) didn't do so well in a crazy three-way race for Maine governor in 2010.
Sure Maine loved Snowe, and polls indicate many voters wish they could have voted for her. But political parties weren't like to give the state that choice by keeping her from the ballot. And she wasn't willing to gamble on a write-in or independent candidacy.