Correction to This Article
An earlier correction of the date of Sen. Susan Collins's first run for elective office erred. Collins (R) first ran for governor of Maine in 1994 and finished third. Two years later, she won her campaign for the Senate.

Two Moderate GOP Senators Give Big Voice To Little Maine

By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 16, 2009

The road to Caribou points north, deep into the cellphone-challenged northeast corner of Maine.

Just before Christmas, Susan Collins, a moderate Republican senator, was driving alone on that road, headed to her parents' home near the Canadian border in the tiny town of Caribou, when her cellphone rang. It was Joseph R. Biden Jr., the soon-to-be vice president, calling to talk up the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan.

The call kept getting cut off. Once. Twice. Three times. But Biden kept calling back.

"I was very impressed with his persistence," Collins recalled in an interview.

Less than two months later, Collins and Maine's other senator, Olympia J. Snowe, defied their party by casting two of the three Republican votes that Democrats needed Friday to pass President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus plan. Democrats won them over by shrinking the package, stripping some items that Republicans considered pork. The votes immediately transformed Snowe and Collins into the most unlikely of Capitol Hill power duos -- they've never been great friends -- and gave notice that sparsely populated Maine is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the national stage.

If the state, with just over 1.3 million residents, were a metropolitan area, it wouldn't be among the country's 25 biggest. It accounts for just seven-tenths of 1 percent of the votes in the presidential electoral college and four-tenths of 1 percent of the U.S. population.

But the new math of Obama-era politics gives Maine influence out of proportion to its size. Even though Democrats have big majorities in both houses of Congress, they fall just short of a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate. It's a situation tailor-made for moderate Republicans to become kingmakers. Collins and Snowe -- along with fellow GOP moderate Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- could hold the key to an array of Obama administration hopes, including health-care reform and further efforts to resuscitate the economy. They can make things happen, or they can stand in the way.

Their new prominence has Mainers -- get used to it, that's what they call themselves -- reminiscing about a time long, long ago when the saying went: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation."

"They're bringing some veracity back to that statement," said the Rev. Robert T. Carlson of Bangor, who has worked with both senators and describes them as "classy ladies."

Collins comes from a long line of politicians -- her father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the Maine Senate, and both of her parents have been mayor of Caribou, a town of 8,000 where her family has been in the lumber business since the 1840s. She learned the inner workings of Capitol Hill as a longtime Senate staffer for William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican who later served as President Bill Clinton's defense secretary. In 1996, Cohen decided not to run for reelection and Collins -- who had left Capitol Hill to run the Center for Family Business at Husson College in Bangor -- won his seat in her first try for elective office.

Snowe's political roots trace to her first husband, Peter Snowe, who was a member of the Maine House of Representatives. She won his seat in 1973 at the age of 26 after he was killed in an automobile accident. In 1989, she married John "Jock" McKernan, a wealthy businessman who was governor of Maine at the time and had served with her earlier in the decade in the state's two-person U.S. House delegation.

Snowe was unavailable to be interviewed for this article.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company