– DIETER BRADBURY

Political Correspondent

When Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party last week, few could have felt more abandoned than Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

As virtually the only Republican moderates in the Senate, the three crossed the aisle to give President Obama and the Democrats the votes they needed to pass the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.

Specter’s departure from the GOP, coupled with the apparent victory of Democrat Al Franken in the Minnesota Senate race, will give Democrats the votes they need to control the upper chamber.

But political analysts say Collins and Snowe will still play an important role in the Senate.

Democrats have no votes to spare, and the party’s history of internal policy dissent means moderate Republican support will almost certainly be needed on certain issues.

“Perhaps they have a little less influence than they did before the switch,” said John Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

“But they’re hardly out of the game, because the Democrats can seldom count on unanimity,” said Pitney, who specializes in study of the Senate.

Specter rocked Capitol Hill on Tuesday when he announced he was switching parties. His term expires next year, and he faces a tough challenge in the GOP primary next April from a conservative former congressman who was leading by double digits in recent polls.

Democrats gleefully welcomed Specter to the fold, while many Republicans condemned him for shelving party convictions in favor of his own political survival.

With Specter in their party, Democrats hold 59 of the Senate’s 100 seats. The 60th seat seems likely to go to Franken, who is winning a legal battle with incumbent Republican Norm Coleman over disputed ballots in the closely contested Minnesota race.

Having 60 seats will, on paper at least, enable Democrats to avoid the threat of a filibuster, the procedural tactic that enables opponents to bog down legislation with endless speech-making.

Specter, Snowe and Collins provided the critical GOP votes that enabled Obama and Democratic leaders to avoid a filibuster and get the economic stimulus package passed in February.

The three Republican moderates were expected to occupy pivotal positions throughout the session, given Obama’s far-reaching agenda and the need for at least nominal GOP support.

Now that the ground has shifted, Snowe and Collins may no longer be indispensable.

But neither are they irrelevant, in the view of some analysts.

Richard M. Skinner, a government professor at Bowdoin College, said Democrats can’t count on unity and will look to Snowe and Collins to provide a margin of error.

“Particularly when the Democrats want to make something look bipartisan, they’re going to turn to them,” Skinner said.

Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, described the Senate as “an unruly body” populated by Democrats who won’t always line up with the Obama administration.

“I still think there are going to be plenty of opportunities for Collins and Snowe to play a fundamental role on policy,” Brewer said.

But L. Sandy Maisel, who teaches government at Colby College, said he thinks Collins and Snowe will lose influence and Specter will gain it.

“From my perspective, that’s too bad,” he said. “It’s certainly too bad for Maine.”

Collins said she was disappointed with Specter’s decision.

“Sen. Specter has long been a leading moderate voice in the Senate, and I believe that his decision is more a reflection of Pennsylvania politics than anything else,” she said.

But Collins also said Republicans need to make it clear that centrists are welcome.

Snowe was more pointed in her criticism, saying Specter’s departure heaped one more loss on the GOP’s defeats at the polls in 2006 and 2008.

“Ultimately, we’re heading to having the smallest political tent in history, the way events have been unfolding,” Snowe said. “If the Republican Party fully intends to become a majority party in the future, it must move from the far right back toward the middle.”

She and Collins both said they would not consider switching parties.

SOME MAINERS ALIENATED

Like Specter, who faced withering GOP criticism in Pennsylvania for voting with Democrats on the stimulus, Snowe and Collins alienated some party members in their state on the stimulus bill.

A poll released last week by Pan Atlantic SMS Group, a Portland strategic planning firm, found that only 40 percent of Mainers who identified themselves as Republicans approved of the senators’ stimulus votes. But the votes were supported by 80 percent of respondents who said they were Democrats and 71 percent of independents, the poll found.

The poll of 400 Maine adults was conducted April 6-14 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

The results reflect what Ken Palmer, a retired political science professor at the University of Maine, calls “politics of personality,” in which popular Maine incumbents are rarely ousted.

“We have a moderate political culture, a big block of independents, and more tendency to move from one party to another,” he said.

Snowe, who captured 72 percent of the vote when she won re-election in 2006, has urged national Republicans to look to her and Collins as the party seeks ways to rebuild itself.

RETURN TO MODERATION

Pitney, the California political scientist, said Snowe and Collins may be ideological outsiders now, but their message will find a larger audience in the years ahead.

He noted that Republicans hold only four of the 34 Senate seats in the Northeast and Pacific border states. To gain a majority again in the Senate, he said, the GOP would have to claim 70 percent of the seats in all the other states — an extremely difficult task.

“There are a lot of Republicans who may be conservative but who recognize they have no hope of getting a majority unless they attract moderate voters,” Pitney said, “and they can’t do that unless they get moderate candidates.”

Skinner, at Bowdoin College, said he’s not sure if Republicans are ready to undertake the kind of introspection and restructuring that parties traditionally undertake after significant defeats.

He said the absence of a strong national leader or any rising GOP stars with moderate leanings may work to leave Collins and Snowe on the party’s margins for a while longer.

“The Republicans have to figure out how to give the public the more activist government that people seem to want right now, without appearing to be Democrats,” he said. “They may need a couple more serious defeats before they are willing to embrace that.”

Political Correspondent Dieter Bradbury can be contacted at 791-6329 or at:

[email protected]