In the summer of 2011, political observers in Maine wondered if Sen. Olympia Snowe might opt not to run for reelection. It wasn’t that they thought she wouldn’t win; the moderate Republican had no serious primary challengers and remained extremely popular with the statewide electorate. Rather they wondered if Snowe would want to return to Capitol Hill now that cross-party consensus builders like herself were grossly outnumbered by tea party firebrands.
But by late February, nobody had any doubts Snowe was running and that she would return to the Senate for a fourth term. She’d hired staff and was fundraising and campaigning hard. Serious Democratic contenders had stayed clear of a race they knew they had no chance of winning. The idea that she’d withdraw on the last day of February — leaving her party with just two weeks to find and collect signatures for a replacement in a potentially critical race — crossed nobody’s mind.
Nobody’s except Snowe’s, as it turned out. According to her new memoir-cum-call-to-action, “Fighting for Common Ground,” she had been secretly contemplating dropping out of the race for months. She claims that, wracked by indecision, she made Feb. 28 “my self-imposed cut-off” and that, “in truth, I really didn’t decide . . . until that day.”
Those hoping for new revelations about Snowe’s last-minute withdrawal will be disappointed. The senator says now what she said then: She became increasingly convinced that Congress had become “a place of burned bridges and scorched Earth” and so “crippled by dysfunction” and partisan trench warfare that she concluded she could serve the country more effectively from outside it than within.
For a politically moderate champion of consensus-building, Capitol Hill had certainly become a difficult place. “I am a Republican who is prepared to compromise — and contrary to current misconceptions, compromise is not a capitulation of one’s principles,” Snowe writes. “Rather it is a recognition that not getting all that you want may be the only way to acquire enough votes to achieve most of what you seek.” She laments that today “many in the Republican Party” think moderate is “a synonym for wishy-washy or anodyne” and see bipartisanship as capitulation. She’s furious that both parties have allowed the Senate — “the world’s greatest deliberative body” — to devolve into a place where “outcomes are often preordained, and positions have usually solidified along party lines before a bill even reaches the Senate floor.”
Her party has also become a less comfortable place for moderates. In 2010, tea party candidates — advocating “the more extreme views within our party” and seeking to “purify” the party of those who would negotiate with Democrats — defeated Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Indiana) and Rep. Mike Castle (R-Delaware) in Senate primaries. (Murkowski won the general election as a write-in candidate, but Democrats captured the other seats.) In 2012, control of Maine’s state party convention was captured by Ron Paul supporters, the convention became a circus, and none of the candidates for Snowe’s seat was able to speak. “That’s unheard of, especially given that it’s one of the primary purposes of the event,” she writes, adding that it had the effect of “demoralizing many Republican activists who were embarrassed at the lack of civility.”