Disappointed by Kevin Raye’s 2nd District loss, Olympia Snowe proposes open primaries as a way to combat DC gridlock
AUGUSTA, Maine — She has been out of office for nearly two years, but former Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe has stayed focused on Washington.
The three-term senator from Maine famously left Congress in 2012, dispirited by what she described as increasingly partisan gridlock and a failure of lawmakers to do the people’s work. She has since taken a role with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a D.C.-based think tank aimed at ending gridlock, and has started her own PAC — Olympia’s List — with which she supports candidates she believes will seek consensus in Washington.
On Tuesday, the BPC will release the report of a commission led by Snowe, which will contain more than 60 recommendations to improve elections and facilitate a more functional Congress, even in the face of divided government.
“This is critically important,” Snowe said in a phone interview Friday. “Otherwise, this current environment of dysfunction could become part of the permanent culture, and that would be to the detriment of this country. So hopefully we’ll make sure this is an aberration, not the norm.”
The report, which is being held under tight guard until Tuesday, includes recommendations focused on electoral and congressional reform, as well as public service for everyone, not just lawmakers.
Ashley Berrang, vice president of communications for BPC, said it was the product of 18 months of work, including four large town hall-style meetings around the country. She said the report includes filibuster reform and proposed changes to campaign finance laws.
Snowe was as mum about the details as Berrang, but said several ideas were clear winners during the commission’s listening tour.
Among those were changes to the redistricting process, which often rewards the party in power with the ability to redraw congressional districts to improve its chances of winning elections. Snowe said she also supported open primaries, so that more independent and moderate voices — not just the fringes of either party — could have a choice in choosing candidates.
While electoral and legislative process work are important, Snowe said other proposals aimed at changing the lifestyle of lawmakers were equally crucial.
“For starters, five-day work weeks,” she said. “They’re rarely in session for all practical purposes. That doesn’t allow for the focus and the concentration on critical matters, or even basic legislative business. … It’s very difficult to get to know your colleagues.”
In addition to her work with the BPC, Snowe converted her former Senate campaign committee into a political action committee, allowing her to spend money and time supporting candidates whom she said are unafraid to take the politically dangerous step of working with the other side.
The danger was highlighted recently, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, was defeated in a primary. Most pundits chalk up Cantor’s loss to his apparent willingness to open talks with Democrats about immigration reform.
According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, Snowe brought nearly $600,000 from her former campaign committee into Olympia’s List in October 2012. According to the most recent report, filed in June, the group has about $225,000 cash on hand.
Most of the group’s spending has gone to operating expenses, but Olympia’s List has made several disbursements to candidates fighting tough primary battles, including GOP U.S. Senate contenders Monica Wehby of Oregon and Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia.
Snowe has also donated to the primary bids of incumbent Republican U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, all of whom Snowe worked with during her 18 years in the Senate.
Wehby, Capito and Graham all won their primary battles this spring, and Alexander appears poised to win his in August. Cochran, though, barely eked out a first-place finish in Mississippi’s June 3 primary and faces a tough run-off election on June 24.
Snowe said Cochran could potentially be made victim of “what’s occurring in the Republican party, [which is], frankly, sort of devouring its own with this purist view.”
She said it’s more and more important to support moderate candidates in the primaries. Former Maine Senate president and Snowe chief of staff Kevin Raye was one recipient of Olympia’s List largesse back in October. Earlier this month, Raye lost his primary to the much more conservative former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.
Snowe stopped short of disparaging Poliquin, but said she was “disappointed” Raye lost. She said he showed what a Republican could accomplish during his two-year stint as Senate president. Under Raye, aided by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, the Legislature approved the largest income tax cut in state history and tackled long-ignored pension reform.
“Republicans have made their decision, ultimately, with Bruce Poliquin,” she said. “Now they have to make sure they have a winning candidate. But Kevin, I think, illustrated the importance of consensus, and compromise. That’s important. He achieved a lot.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.