When Maine's two U.S. senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, broke ranks with all but one other Republican and voted "Yes" on President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus, they handed the White House an early, critical win. As some Republicans seethed, the two were celebrated as the most powerful women in Washington.
The only Republican senator to join Snowe and Collins in voting for the stimulus bill vote was Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Democrats needed at least two of the three votes for the bill to reach Obama's desk. Weeks later, Specter, a moderate who had long been courted by Democrats, abandoned the GOP, his home for 43 years, in an about-face that was both stunning and predictable: stunning because he had often insisted that he would never flee his party, and predictable because in doing so he joined a long list of moderate Republican senators who are yesterday's news.
The Senate once was a comfortable home for GOP centrists, with household names like John Warner of Virginia, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, John and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and three Oregonians: Bob Packwood, Mark Hatfield, and Gordon Smith.
Another moderate, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, famously defected from the GOP in 2001 and restyled himself an independent. Jeffords declined to run again in 2006. Snowe felt the 2006 losses personally; she carried Maine handily with 74 percent of the vote, but two neighbors in the Senate's Russell Building went down, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee. And when Oregon voters threw Smith out in 2008, the three states on America's "Left Coast" lost the only GOP senator they had. "It's devastating, really, when you look at the totality of the picture and the imbalance it has created in our party," Snowe says. "Somebody wrote to me recently and said, 'If Republicans don't watch out, we'll have the smallest tent in history for a political party.' "
The stimulus vote demonstrated the clout Collins and Snowe wield with Democrats short of the 60 votes needed to advance controversial bills. But their outsize influence has done nothing to tamp down their real worries about the future of the Grand Old Party.
A pivotal figure in negotiations on the stimulus, Collins was bombarded with about 100,000 E-mails in the days leading up to the vote: about 13,000 from Mainers, who were split on the issue, and the rest from mostly angry out-of-staters who condemned her "in very personal terms," Collins says. National politics can be as much a contact sport as ice hockey, something Mainers know a thing or two about. But what's curious about the anti-Collins campaign is who she thinks was behind it. Though she won't name him publicly, she blames a fellow GOP senator for unleashing it.
It used to be that the Republican Senate caucus, which has shrunk to 40 lawmakers, was much more collegial. But while she is "disappointed" by the sharp elbows, Collins worries more about the broader implications of the dwindling number of GOP centrists. And her concern is echoed by Snowe. They say the loss of moderates is bad for the GOP, bad for their region, and bad for America. And they fear that the party ultimately could cede turf to moderate Democrats, jeopardizing hopes of regaining congressional majorities and putting the GOP at risk in future presidential contests.
Collins coasted to re-election last fall with 61 percent of the vote, but throughout the six states of New England (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) she saw a distressing pattern. With four Senate battles and 22 House races across the region, "I was the lone victor" among GOP hopefuls, she says. In the House, no Republican anywhere on the ideological spectrum now represents New England, once a GOP stronghold. Collins believes that as party allegiances become more entrenched in many places, the competition between parties is dropping off and debate is being stifled. And this, she says, isn't good for the GOP's prospects: "We're not going to win presidential elections if we become increasingly a party of white, Southern men."
Toe the line. The new chair of the Republican National Committee, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, is an African-American whose choice was intended to prevent that. But he found himself in hot water with the Senate centrists when he threatened to fund primary challengers against them if they didn't toe the line on key votes. "Strange," says Collins. "Horrendous," says Snowe. "I have been in Congress for 30 years, and there was always sort of an understanding that, obviously, senators and members of the House are going to depart from the norm of the Republican Party" on some votes. "You're reflecting the views of your constituents," she says.