The recent election gave lefties a once-a-decade jolt: The good guys won, the Republican party got the throttling it deserved, and even candidates who once seemed unbeatable--Sen. George Allen (R-VA) and Rep. Clay Shaw (R-FL) come to mind--went down to defeat.
But as election night unfolded, as Democrats soared ahead in one tough congressional district after another and hung close in places like Wyoming and Idaho, one bad result seemed like a real head-scratcher: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) absolutely obliterated her Democratic opponent, capturing 74% of the vote and winning by a staggering 53% points. (Hillary Clinton, by contrast, won her race by 36%.)
With candidates to the left of Snowe garnering 90% of the senate vote in nearby Connecticut, it was hard not to see Snowe's landslide win as a missed opportunity. That Snowe was able to win in a walk seemed even more unfortunate once we learned that only a single Republican congressman had survived in New England.
So, how did a Republican in Maine--a state, keep in mind, that Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) carried by a solid nine points--win in a breeze as her GOP colleagues succumbed left and right?
The answer probably has something to do with the strength of Snowe's opponent--I haven't looked closely at how that campaign developed, and won't do so here. I'm more interested in the factor that likely kept the race from becoming competitive in the first place: Namely, that Snowe is widely perceived, even on the left, as a different kind of Republican--an independent-minded, fiscally conservative, socially moderate centrist who bucks her party when it veers too far to the right.
It's a great niche for a blue state Republican. But the facts are a little more complicated.
Yes, Snowe is pro-choice, supports stem cell research, and has a not-terrible record on environmental issues.
But she also voted for Bush's irresponsible, budget-busting 2001 and 2005 tax cuts.
As recently as June 2006, with the federal debt soaring to record levels, she supported permanently repealing the estate tax.
Snowe voted for the bankruptcy bill, against repealing tax subsidies for companies that move US jobs offshore, and for allowing lobbyists to continue to make some gifts to Congress.
She voted in favor of Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court and 'Yes' on a flag burning amendment to the constitution.
She voted to authorize the use of military force against Iraq.
These votes and others earned Snowe 78% ratings in 2005 from both the US Chamber of Commerce and the hard-right Concerned Women for America.
So: A liberal Republican maverick? Or a solid Bush ally who has made a few head-fakes toward the center?
It may seem, at this point, like an academic question. But it isn't: Maine will face a similar choice in 2008, when Snowe's Republican colleague Sen. Susan Collins is on the ballot.
Collins sided with Snowe on all of the above-referenced votes.
Of course, the two senators don't have identical candidate profiles--for example, Collins voted in favor of Bush's 2003 $350 billion tax cut for the wealthy, which Snowe opposed. She also backed the President's torture-embracing military commissions bill, a vote which Snowe managed to skip.
(Collins also strikes me as the weaker public speaker of the two, and the less charismatic.)
But Collins, like Snowe, has cast herself in the role of the thoughtful moderate, even though a few minutes poking around the web reveals that the record is a bit muddier.
Will progressives make defeating Collins a priority in 2008? Or will we cede another blue state senate seat to the GOP?
If Democrats learned one thing in 2006, let's hope it's that even strong GOP candidates can be beaten when Democrats mount serious challenges.