Sen. Snowe, Moderate Republican 'Fed Up' With the 'Extreme Right' and Social Issues, Says NYT

On Thursday, New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman fretted over the lack of GOP centrists (a common and long-lasting theme in Timesland) after news broke of the surprise retirement of "fed up" moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine: “After Many Tough Choices, the Choice to Quit.”

As Weisman tells it, it was the rise of those distracting “social issues” that sent Snowe over the edge:

The looming Senate vote on a Republican plan to give employers the right to withdraw health care coverage based on religious and moral convictions put Senator Olympia J. Snowe in a tough but familiar position: weighing her own views as a Republican centrist against pressure from fellow Republicans to support the party position.

A longtime advocate of increasing access to health care and one of a dwindling number of Republican backers of abortion rights, Ms. Snowe believed that the language was too broad and could have unintended consequences. At the same time, an embattled Republican colleague, Senator Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, had publicly backed it, and a "no" vote from Ms. Snowe, of Maine, could isolate him as he sought to fend off anger in his heavily Democratic state.

It was the type of difficult choice that led to her surprise announcement on Tuesday to give up on the Senate, and it reflected growing uneasiness among Republican moderates with the return to a focus on social issues and with demands for party purity in the Republican electorate.


The vote set for Thursday, framed as a choice between contraceptive coverage and religious freedom, was not the reason Ms. Snowe made her announcement, she said. Her retirement decision was bigger than any one vote. But people familiar with her thinking say the re-emergence of such hot-button social issues helped nudge her to the exit.

Georgia Chomas, a cousin of the senator who described herself as more like a sister, said social conservatives and Tea Party activists in Maine were hounding her at home, while party leaders in Washington had her hemmed in and steered the legislative agenda away from the matters she cared about.

"There was a constant, constant struggle to accommodate everyone, and a lot of pressure on her from the extreme right," Ms. Chomas said from her real estate office in Auburn, Me. "And she just can't go there."

Weisman quoted other moderate Northeastern Republicans Mike Castle and Lincoln Chafee lamenting the lack of people like themselves in office, then mentioned that “Abortion-rights groups say that only one Republican senator who strongly supports abortion rights, Susan Collins of Maine, will remain in 2013.” Is abortion on demand the Times’s idea of a sensible centrist issue?

Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the senator often considered the most conservative Democrat, and Ms. Snowe, seen as the most liberal Republican, will both be gone next year, as will Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who left a Democratic Party that would not tolerate his pro-Iraq war stand. They follow a parade of centrists out the Senate doors in recent years, including the Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Evan Bayh; a Republican-turned-Democrat, Arlen Specter; and two Republicans-turned-independents, James M. Jeffords and Mr. Chafee.

Bayh, while not as liberal as some of his colleagues, was certainly no "centrist": His American Conservative Union rating was 21 out of a possible 100 before his 2010 retirement, the same lifetime rating as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas before she lost her seat the same year.

Weisman mostly talked to disaffected Republicans and solely about “social issues like abortion, gay marriage and contraception.” (Although Obama has turned contraception into a financial issue by mandating companies pay for employee’s contraception.)

After saying that Snowe had just gotten “fed up,” Weisman concluded with the same source who called Snowe’s Tea Party critics extreme.

Ms. Snowe may have just grown fed up. At raucous Republican caucuses in February, her name was greeted with jeers from some Tea Party activists. Republicans had seized control of the governor's mansion and the State Legislature in 2010, but for the most ardent conservatives, it was not enough, Ms. Chomas said. Ms. Snowe had turned 65. Ms. Chomas's mother, who was like a mother to Ms. Snowe, had died, followed by the mother of Ms. Snowe's husband, John R. McKernan Jr., and the mother of her late husband, Peter Snowe.

"I understand her legacy," said Ms. Chomas. "I just want her to be happy, and happy has been gone for a while."

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.