Froma Harrop | Will Snowe Fall in Maine?

Go visit potato country at the tippy-top of Maine. There, struggling farmers can look across the St. John River at equally hard-pressed potato growers in New Brunswick, Canada. The big difference between them is that if one of the Mainers falls grievously ill, the family may have to sell the farm to pay medical bills. The Canadian family doesn’t.

This in-your-face gap in health care security is most keenly felt along the border with Canada. That makes the determination by Maine’s two “moderate” Republican senators to oppose health care reform all the more extraordinary. Are Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins reading the papers back home?

Polls show Mainers strongly in favor of serious reform, including the public option. That support can only have hardened this month, when Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield announced plans to raise health-insurance premiums in Maine by up to 23 percent. (Anthem holds 80 percent of the market.)

But none of this has emboldened either Snowe or Collins to buck orders coming down from Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He explains why no Republican may vote for the health care bill as follows: “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this was OK, they must have figured it out.”

Come November 2012, Snowe won’t face the senator from Kentucky. She’ll face the people of Maine. Democrats would do well to find a challenger more formidable than the organic farmer they ran last time.

For over 150 years, New England Republicans could be relied on to back progressive legislation, as long as it was paid for. That political culture almost vanished with the departures of Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords and Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays. These truly independent Republicans took enormous abuse from party enforcers and thus ran a kind of interference for the likes of Snowe and Collins.

Now hardly a day goes by in which Snowe doesn’t issue a press release touting how hard she’s working with Democrats on some minor matter. But health care is the big one. It is the issue of a generation.

Snowe inflicted her worst damage on this reform by holding it up. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, she wasted week after week supposedly negotiating with Democrats. The delay left the proposals sitting for months like roadkill to be picked apart by vultures. Her top demand, removal of the public option, was met, and she voted against the full Senate bill anyway.

The politics of being Olympia Snowe are very interesting. Maine’s registered voters are 33 percent Democratic, 27 percent Republican and almost 40 percent “other.” In November, Snowe’s approval ratings among constituents were already slipping from their formerly sky-high levels, according to a Public Policy Polling survey.

Remarkably, her poorest showing, 40 percent, was among Republicans, whose base reviles her as a compromiser. Snowe drew her biggest approval rating, 60 percent, from Democrats, followed by independents at 51 percent. But that was back when she was still playing the brave moderate trying to work a bipartisan deal on health care.

Maine’s small Republican base need not fret. Snowe is no compromiser when it counts for them. Barring a surprise turnaround, she’s sticking with “the strategy” most memorably articulated by South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

I wonder how most Maine voters, who still voice strong backing for the president, feel about Snowe now. One thing is clear: Olympia Snowe is not going to waltz into re-election.

Copyright 2010 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by Creators.com