If the polls are correct, November will bring significant change to Congress. President Bush remains unpopular with a majority of Americans. Iraq is a mess and getting worse by the day. The housing market is losing its strength. A recent survey found that almost two-thirds of Americans believe that national economic conditions are getting worse, not better.

Republican incumbents are being advised to watch out: the voters don’t like what they see and are preparing to punish the party in power. In this atmosphere, it seems logical that Olympia Snowe should be feeling some heat from the electorate. Instead, Maine’s senior senator is cruising toward a comfortable re-election. How is Snowe managing to buck the national trend? I believe there are three main reasons: Moderation, Minimalism and Fear.


In many ways, Olympia Snowe is a throwback to the way Republicans used to be. She is fiscally conservative and socially liberal. On key legislation, she votes more like a Massachusetts liberal than a Texas conservative. For example, this year she did not support the gay marriage constitutional amendment, she refused to extend the Bush tax cuts and voted to allow federal money for stem cell research.

However Snowe veers to the right on defense and foreign policy. On these issues, she votes more like a Texas conservative than a Massachusetts liberal. This is best illustrated by her key votes on Iraq. She originally supported the war, and this year has voted against pulling out American troops, either gradually or by a specific date. Snowe also voted to confirm Michael Hayden as CIA director, even though he was leading the National Security Agency when it carried out warrantless surveillance of phone calls.

On the environment, Snowe swings back to the left. She is a strong conservationist, is opposed to drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, thinks global warming is real and wants to save the whales. She was the second-greenest Republican senator in 2005, according to Republicans for Environmental Protection. The League of Conservation Voters has endorsed her re-election.


The American Heritage Dictionaries defines minimalism as: “Use of the fewest and barest essentials or elements…” As applied to music, it is characterized by an “extreme simplification of rhythms, patterns, and harmonies, prolonged chordal or melodic repetitions, and often a trancelike effect.” As applied to painting and sculpture, it uses “basic shapes and monochromatic palettes of primary colors, objectivity and anonymity of style.”

Repetition. Basic shapes. Anonymity of style. This is how Snowe operates. Her mantra of fiscal responsibility can get boring after a while, probably because she repeats it so often and the theme is so basic. She is not a news hog and seems more interested in results than in who gets credit.

Just recently, Snowe voted with Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to release parts of a report on Iraq and pre-war intelligence. The information that was released stated that the links between Al-Qaeda and Iraq were disputed by American intelligence before the war. The following statement from the senator is classic Snowe minimalism: “After reviewing thousands of pages of evidence, I voted for the conclusions that most closely reflect the facts in the report. Policy makers seemingly discounted or dismissed warnings about the veracity of critical intelligence reports that may have served as a basis for going to war.”

The Snowe household is not financially needy. Her husband, former Maine Governor John McKernan Jr., has made a tremendous amount of money through his relationship with EDMC, the Education Management Corporation. However she doesn’t flaunt this wealth and seems to deliberately keep to a basic, middle-of-the road appearance. She is about the farthest thing from glitzy.

What about fear?

What is striking is the absence of a strong Democratic opponent for Snowe. While Jean Hay Bright is an earnest challenger, the party could have tried to put up a stronger candidate. Experienced politicians like Congressman Tom Allen and Attorney General Steven Rowe both declined to enter the race.

Why didn’t the Democrats try to nominate a more authoritative candidate? They were scared of losing. Snowe is very popular. She won her last race with 69 percent of the vote. The Democrats knew that she would have a lot of campaign money. They were right. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Sept. 8, Snowe had raised almost $3 million while Hay Bright had raised only $42,618.

Snowe is not without criticism. A recent Portland Phoenix article objected to Snowe (and Collins) support of Bush’s judicial nominees, in respect to women’s issues. The cover was an unflattering depiction of Snowe, with her sporting buttons saying “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” and “Pro Choice” and masking tape saying “Life” over her mouth.

Last year, a number of right-wingers were irate with her, also over judicial nominees. However, they were upset over her role in creating a bipartisan bargain that prevented a Senate showdown over the issue. According to several reports, Republican State Rep. Brian Duprey considered challenging her in this year’s primary.

If Olympia Snowe is back in Washington next January, moderation, minimalism and fear will be the reasons why.

Karl Trautman is the chairperson of the Department of Social Sciences at Central Maine Community College. He was a policy analyst with the Michigan Legislature from 1997 to 2001. He can be reached at [email protected]

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