Let's say you're a moderate New England Republican senator, and you're up for re-election in 2012. What looks to be your biggest political problem? Well, looking at what just happened to some of your colleagues, you've got a strong incentive to avoid, or if that's not possible, overcome, a primary challenge. That means doing stuff like this:
She was once considered the most likely Republican to vote for health care reform. Now, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) is joining scores of Republicans and conservatives in support of the Florida health care lawsuit's plaintiffs, challenging the Constitutionality of the law.
Yesterday, she and 30 other Republicans signed an amicus brief in the case.
You may remember the extraordinary amount of energy that Barack Obama and Harry Reid and Max Baucus put into courting Snowe during the health-care debate. She played footsie with them for months, always maintaining the idea -- which turned out to be fantasy -- that with the right combination of tweaks to the bill they could win her support. She even voted for the bill in committee, which was an excellent way of stringing Democrats along, but had no practical impact since the Democrats had an ample majority to pass it out of the committee. And of course, after all was said and done, she voted against reform, just like every other Republican.
Supporting lawsuits asking the courts to overturn laws passed by the nation's legislature is an unusual position for a legislator to take. But Snowe is looking over her right shoulder. A poll taken in September found 63 percent of Maine Republicans saying they'd prefer a more conservative candidate for the Senate, and only 29 percent saying they'll stick with Snowe.
With numbers like that, and a conservative base that now realizes it has more power than it imagined, it's almost guaranteed that Snowe will be getting a primary challenge from the right. So now she has three choices. She can switch parties, which doesn't guarantee her survival (ask Arlen Specter). She can just act on principle and do as good a job as she can for her constituents. Or she can spend the next two years convincing her party's base that she's as conservative as they want her to be.
Looks like it'll be option No. 3. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Snowe came out and told Mainers that her performance during the health-care debate was actually all a subtle ruse designed to undermine Obamacare. It wouldn't be too hard to make the case.
-- Paul Waldman