While the nation scrutinizes Florida to guess the outcome of the
presidential race, somebody had better keep an eye on Auburn,
Maine, the home of the Democrats' best chance to take back
the Senate. Although the anticipated fight for control of the
House of Representatives has fizzled in a wave of incumbent
reelections, the normally staid Senate could yet be host to some
fast and furious trading of perks and promises as both parties try
to cement a majority.
The new margin in the Senate is a 50-49 split in favor of the
Republicans, with the Washington state race still too close to
call. Even if Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell emerges the
victor from that contest and the Senate divides evenly for the
first time in over 100 years, most agree that Republicans would
still retain control: Either Vice President Cheney would break
the tie or Connecticut's GOP governor would appoint a
Republican to fill the seat that Vice President Lieberman
But if Democrats were able to lure one or two moderate
Republicans to their side, they could fashion a steady, albeit slim,
majority of their own. Relative newcomers Lincoln Chafee of
Rhode Island and Susan Collins of Maine are reasonable targets
-- Chafee's 100 percent rating with the American Civil Liberties
Union is unrivaled in the Senate and Collins has proven her
independence by taking on the tobacco industry and pushing for
campaign finance reform.
The real prize, however, is Maine's senior senator, Olympia
Snowe. If Senate Democrats are smart, they are already
wooing her with all the political plums it will take to get her to
say "I do" to the Democratic Party. It just might work.
Snowe is a sharp, savvy politician with decades of service to the
Republican Party. But in a caucus that swings far right of center,
Snowe's views on social and other domestic issues make her a
tropical plant in an arctic climate.
In a closely divided chamber, pressure from the Republican
leadership to vote the party line will be stronger than ever.
Republicans have never given Snowe the prominence she
deserves. If they recognized her talent and appeal, Snowe would
be Bush's running mate instead of Cheney -- and we might not
be holding our collective breath over a handful of punch cards,
because this election would probably be over.
Given her isolation within the Republican caucus, Snowe will
have to match Strom Thurmond's seniority before the leadership
will grant her chairmanship of a committee. The Democrats
could give her one now. The proudly independent voters of
Maine would be even more likely to forgive Snowe's switch if
she chaired the Small Business Committee (one on which she
already has plenty of seniority). This would only require the
Democrats to leapfrog John Kerry, who would be too satisfied
with his new chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee to
Just a few years ago, Democrats might have reasonably feared
losing a few of their own in a round of horse-trading. By now,
however, all of the likely suspects have either already switched,
retired, or been incorporated into the Democratic leadership -- a
particularly shrewd move by Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.
Although it is a morbid topic, the reality is that Republican
control of the Senate may rest on the shaky health of 97-year-
old Strom Thurmond and ailing Jesse Helms. (Both their states
have Democratic governors who would appoint Democrats to
fill any open Senate seat.) If anything should happen to either
Senator during the 107th Congress, the balance of power in the
Senate would switch mid-Congress for the first time in our
history. Snowe could find herself in a Republican minority in a
year or two, or she could help the Democrats secure a firm
Finally, regardless of the outcome in the Washington Senate
race, 2000 has been another record year for women in the
Senate. Although they are by no means of one mind, the dozen
pro-choice women have the potential to be a powerful voting
bloc. Female senators have often bemoaned the fact that male
perspectives dominate and shape political debate. They will
now have a better chance to influence the way issues are framed
and make that influence more powerfully felt. Snowe could be
on the outside of that effort in the Republican Party or on the
inside as a Democratic senator.
A few things might affect Snowe's decision. First, if incumbent
Republican Slade Gorton ekes out a win in the Washington
Senate race, it might take two party-switchers to give
Democrats control. Second, Snowe's incentives might be
affected by who wins the presidency. President Bush could
reward Republican senators, and President Gore would reward
Democratic ones. As goes the presidency, so might the Senate.
Democrats have already made overtures to moderate
Republicans including Snowe. The balance of power in one
branch of government depends on their decisions.