WASHINGTON — Sen. Olympia Snowe has been in the hot national spotlight of the national health care reform debate for the past several months, and some in her party say the Maine Republican is melting away from her conservative roots.
Since her vote last month in favor of the Senate Finance Committee’s health care bill — the only Republican on the panel to give it a nod of approval — Snowe has been under fire from both sides. Some on the left say she is attempting to hold reform hostage to her whims, while some of her colleagues on the right call her a traitor to the conservative cause.
The strongest anti-Snowe statement from a Republican public figure came last week from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, R-Minn., who on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” refused to tell host Joe Scarborough whether he was glad that Snowe was a Republican, though, he added, she was surely better than a Democrat.
“There is a process in her state that is broad-based that endorses her, and the Republicans in that state say, ‘We want her to be our candidate,’” Pawlenty said.
“She’s somebody who has gotten into the middle of the health care debate in a way that makes Republicans mad,” he said. “They may accept that, but they’re not going to accept her deviating on many other things.”
Pawlenty made his first trip to Iowa earlier this week in what is widely assumed to be the genesis of a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, and he has been hailed in some quarters as a post-Palin national face for the Republican Party.
The day after Pawlenty’s TV appearance, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele appeared on the same network and said that Snowe was “absolutely” welcome in the party, despite her record of voting along party lines only about 59 percent of the time, the greatest deviance among Republican senators.
Steele said that different districts had unique party personalities, and while Snowe “may not work in South Carolina, she works in Maine.”
Snowe, for her part, responded to Pawlenty’s criticism coolly.
“All I know is that I’ve been a lifelong Republican, I [spent] 16 years toiling in the minority in the House of Representatives and [was part of] the effort to get us the majority in 1994; now we’re in the minority and I’m still here,” she told Politico.
Arden Manning, the executive director of the Maine Democratic Party, said that he could see “some anger” toward Snowe from the state’s conservative base.
A recent poll suggests her approval ratings among Republicans in her home state is sinking.
The poll released this week by Public Policy Polling showed that among conservative Republicans in Maine, Snowe has only a 29 percent approval rating. Of the likely Republican voters polled, 59 percent said they would vote for a more conservative candidate than Snowe if the elections were today.
Conversely, Snowe now carries a 60 percent approval rating with Democrats in her home state, though just three weeks ago, she had a 70 percent approval with the same group.
Overall, the poll scored her at a 51 percent job approval rating.
Snowe was reelected in 2006 with 74 percent of her state’s vote.
Not only have national GOP figures spoken about Snowe, but angry conservatives from across the country staged a makeshift protest after her Finance Committee vote, encouraged by popular conservative blog RedState to send bags of rock salt to Snowe’s Maine office in an attempt to “melt” the senator.
“The Maine Republican Party is quite far to the right,” Manning said, “and in the last couple of years has really let the activist base of their party pull the Maine Republican Party out of the mainstream and further to the right.”
The Maine Republican Party and the Republican National Committee declined to respond to requests for comment.
University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer said that he didn’t see much chance of the GOP’s punishing Snowe for her defection.
“Everybody’s known all along that her views on health care [differ from the party line],” he said. “It’s not like this is some big revelation or change.”
Brewer also said that though the Republican National Committee could reprimand Snowe, if it chooses, that probably would not be a blow to her.
“I don’t necessarily think that she has aspirations to go anywhere else or up the political food chain, but probably because she’s pretty high up there as it is,” he said.
“The Senate is an institution that allows individual senators to have a huge amount of influence and power,” Brewer said. “We see that right now…. That doesn’t happen in the House. Other than being one of the nine justices on the Supreme Court or being the president or being the head of the [Federal Reserve], I don’t know where else you’d go to wield that kind of clout, other than the Senate.”
Asked if she would call herself a maverick, the label Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was happy to accept during his 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Snowe brushed the question aside with her usual answer:
Whatever people wanted to call her, she said, “I have a job to do.”