WASHINGTON — Even before Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine blindsided her party by announcing she would not seek re-election, GOP hopes for winning four seats and recapturing the Senate this year were beginning to dim.
Democratic seats that Republicans had thought they could scoop up — in Montana, Missouri and Ohio, for example — were not looking like such sure bets. Holding on to vulnerable Republican seats in Massachusetts and Nevada was becoming more daunting. Now, with Maine suddenly up for grabs, the GOP goal of taking over the Senate is in question.
“Clearly this is a bump in the road,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican Senate campaign chief, acknowledged Wednesday.
But something else about Snowe’s exit has dampened the mood among both Republicans and Democrats: Whichever party holds control next January, the era of moderates in the Senate is over. That will make the polarization that the Maine moderate blamed for her departure even deeper, and the prospects of passing significant legislation even harder.
Centrists in both parties are in short supply, but moderate Republicans, in particular, have nearly vanished, driven out in many cases by opposition from tea party insurgents. As a result, the upper chamber is gridlocked not only by its narrow partisan split — 53 to 47 — but also by the unwillingness of senators to cross the aisle in search of compromise.
The hard-right turn of the GOP presidential primaries, fueled partly by the rise of socially conservative Rick Santorum, amplifies the message to Republicans farther down the ticket: There’s little room for more moderate candidates derisively referred to as RINOs, Republicans in Name Only.
That’s a mistake, some analysts warned.
“Political parties should be in the business of recruiting people to the cause, not hunting heretics,” said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, the former presidential campaign manager for John McCain. “This whole notion of let’s define people — particularly in the Northeast — who don’t line up 100 percent on every issue, let’s label them as RINOs and chase them out of the party, makes the party weaker.”
To be sure, nonpartisan analysts say it is impossible to predict at this point which party will win the majority. The political climate that changed so quickly in Democrats’ favor, with the economy perking up and President Barack Obama’s standing improving, could change yet again.
Republicans have just 10 seats to defend; Democrats have more than twice as many, counting the two independents who caucus with them. And if a Republican wins the White House, the GOP needs to gain just three seats in the Senate for a 50-50 tie that would be broken by the vice president.
Nonetheless, Republican leaders are lowering their expectations for a takeover that just a few months ago had lawmakers musing about committee chairmanships and other leadership posts.
“It was going to be a heavy lift anyway,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. “You look in the aggregate, it would seem to be an advantage for our side, but if you look at it race by race, state by state, to get a net four was going to be a heavy lift.”
Re-electing the most vulnerable Republicans has become more challenging, especially because the party has lacked a cohesive message during the extended presidential primary season.
Massachusetts may be the year’s marquee contest. Republican Scott Brown tapped tea party sentiment to claim the seat once held by Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, but he is now among the chamber’s few moderates. He faces Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a hero among liberals for her work setting up the president’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Democrats also have had some success recruiting candidates for seats held by retiring Democrats. On Wednesday, for example, former Sen. Bob Kerrey gave his party a boost by changing course and announcing he would enter the Nebraska race to succeed retiring Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat.
Republicans, meanwhile, have struggled to land top candidates to challenge sitting Democrats in Missouri and Ohio. And in Indiana, GOP Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a six-term moderate, faces one of his toughest electoral battles, in part because of intraparty attacks from conservatives.
Snowe’s decision came as a surprise to party leaders, who were given little warning of her intentions other than her increasingly vocal complaints at senators’ closed-door meetings about the polarization that has come to dominate the chamber. Never one to adhere much to party protocol, Snowe told Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the GOP leader, of her decision just hours before her announcement.
In an interview on MSNBC Wednesday, Snowe described the “dysfunctional” political system and “political paralysis” that led to her departure.
“People in the center are increasingly vilified,” agreed fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. “We used to be applauded for bringing people together to actually solve problems. Now we tend to be criticized by both sides.”
Contributing to that is the rise of powerful issue groups on the right that have become active in Republican primary races. The conservative Club for Growth released an annual “scorecard” Wednesday that grades lawmakers based on key votes. This year, 19 Republicans had a rating of 90 percent or more; six years ago, the number was nine. Only two Republicans scored less than 50 percent, down from six.
Democratic centrists have had their own troubles. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut has also declined to seek re-election this fall; in his last race, he was challenged from the left and lost the Democratic primary but won as an independent.
In Snowe’s case, some had suggested that the GOP-led push to turn back the Obama administration’s new rule requiring most employers or insurers to provide birth control coverage might have been a final straw. But senators and staff familiar with her thinking said that was not the case.
“The far right and the tea party have decimated what little there was of Republican moderates in the Senate, and I think that’s very bad for the country,” said former Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican who became a Democrat after being chased out of his party by the right flank. “The takeover by the extremes of both parties, I think, has just devastated the legislative branch.”