PORTLAND, Maine – Maine’s two U.S. senators could emerge from Tuesday’s election with greater clout than before, even as they’re poised to lose their committee chairmanships and begin to take on the appearance of an endangered political species.

Olympia Snowe, who breezed past two opponents with 74 percent of the vote, and Susan Collins, who’s not up for re-election until 2008, are among the last of a shrinking corps of moderate Republicans who are in position to shape the outcome on key Senate votes.

The defeat of Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, arguably the most liberal GOP senator, and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, who at times aligned himself with the moderates, leaves Snowe, Collins and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania as perhaps the only reliably centrist Republicans.

“It’s truly regrettable,” Snowe said. “Losing individuals like Linc Chafee and Mike DeWine, who were moderate consensus builders in the U.S. Senate, is a serious reversal.”

But with the Senate sharply divided and Democrats poised to set the agenda, Snowe and Collins could find themselves in a position where their power is enhanced.

“It gives them increased influence. They’re going to be very much sought after, no matter which party ends up in control,” Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College said before Virginia Sen. George Allen’s concession assured a Democratic majority.

“They’re in good shape,” agreed Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, who worked with Snowe on campaign finance reform. “In some ways the fact that there are fewer moderates may enhance their influence.”

Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said Snowe and Collins are likely to emerge as potential contact people for Democrats looking to deal with the GOP.

The two Maine senators have a track record of working across party lines, sometimes with a varying cast of senators on an issue-by-issue basis. They were among seven Republicans who teamed up with seven Democrats to cobble a compromise that averted a bruising battle over filibusters of judicial nominations.

Snowe’s re-election campaign saw her two opponents try to focus discussion on Iraq and health care while the senator emphasized her credentials as a moderate who shuns partisanship in order to get things done.

While lamenting recent electoral trends that have seen “the red states get redder and the blue states get bluer,” she said she hopes Tuesday’s outcome represents a repudiation of “the status quo politics that led to a style of confrontation that brings no good results.”

Snowe and Collins agreed that centrists will play a pivotal role in a Senate where Democrats and the two independents aligned with them hold a 51-49 majority.

“You really need 60 votes to move significant legislation and neither party has anywhere close to that magic number,” Collins said. “That means there’s still a lot of opportunity for those in the middle to forge compromises across party lines.”

Indeed, the Democrats’ margin is so slim that any individual senator has the potential to decide the outcome of a vote.

“This is especially important for the remaining members of the ‘Gang of 14’ who had already shown a willingness and an interest in working across party lines to prevent stalemate,” said John Baughman, a political science professor at Bates College.

Maisel said the Maine senators and Spector could help build a centrist coalition with conservative Democrats, including the newly elected Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania and Jim Webb of Virginia, and with Democrat-turned-independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Collins said the new Democratic senators, with a couple of exceptions, would fit comfortably in the centrist camp.

“They really ran in many cases as if they were moderate Republicans,” Collins said, pointing to Webb, Casey, Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

The Democratic takeover will cost Collins her chairmanship of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Lieberman, who planned to caucus with the Democrats and was expected to retain his seniority, is in line to take over as chairman.

Snowe is slated to lose her chairmanship of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, giving way to John Kerry of Massachusetts.

While disappointed at the loss of the top spot on Homeland Security, Collins said she still expects to play a critical role because she and Lieberman always worked well together. She even campaigned with him after he lost the Democratic primary and repackaged himself as an independent.

The loss of chairmanships may mean less visibility for the two senators but that could be more than offset by their enhanced role in shaping legislation on a range of issues, Schmidt said.

After an election where moderate Republicans from the Northeast were among the biggest losers, Maine’s Senate team stands out as a breed apart.

Snowe, Collins and political analysts point to the state party’s long tradition of moderation and the independent spirit of a Maine electorate.

“Most of all, it reflects the people of the state,” Collins said. “Maine is a state where people do put aside party labels and work together. Maybe it’s our tradition of town meetings. I don’t know, but it really does remain a strong tradition here, no doubt about it.”

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