WASHINGTON — Two of the renegade Republican senators critical to getting the economic stimulus bill through the Senate — Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins — represent a state where folks are known for their flinty, thrifty ways.
The other GOP maverick, Arlen Specter, is from Pennsylvania, where the government has long been regarded as an economic lifeline.
So it's hardly a surprise that the three moderate Republicans are the only lawmakers in their party so far to go along with the Democrats' economic stimulus plan. They play a key role in shaping a compromise stimulus package, since Democrats control 58 Senate seats and need at least two more to cut off procedural roadblocks.
GOP centrists used to dominate politics in much of the Northeast. They sided with Democrats on social issues — Specter, Collins and Snowe all got perfect marks last year from NARAL Pro-Choice America — but distinguished themselves from Democrats by preaching fiscal discipline.
They are now isolated in their party, because since the mid-1970s, the GOP's economic message has been dominated by conservatives who insist on massive tax cuts and demand loyalty on social issues. As that became the GOP image, Republicans had a harder time winning in the Northeast. When Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays lost his re-election bid last year, it meant the six New England states had no Republican House members.
Snowe, Collins and Specter survive partly because they came up through the political ranks years ago, before the Republican image changed.
Snowe, 61, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 and the Senate in 1994. Her story is well-known in Maine: Orphaned at 9, worked as a young political aide and married State Rep. Peter Snowe, who died in a car accident. She was elected to succeed him in 1973.
Collins, 56, comes from a political family — both parents held office — and before winning election to the Senate in 1996, worked 12 years for Maine Sen. William Cohen.
Specter, 79 on Thursday, goes farther back. He was a top aide to the Warren Commission that investigated the John F. Kennedy assassination, and served eight years as Philadelphia district attorney from 1965 to 1973.
Elected to the Senate in 1980, he's rarely had an easy election. Conservatives distrust him, and Pat Toomey came within 2 percentage points of defeating him in a primary in 2004. Democrats see him as vulnerable and decry his occasional support for Republican causes, so he rarely wins re-election easily.
Yet Specter reflects his diverse state.
"What does the average working man and woman in Pennsylvania care about? They want jobs," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics & Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "They're less worried about his votes on Supreme Court justices."
Snowe and Collins reflect a different kind of constituency. Maine is notorious for its orneriness. It has elected two independent governors since 1974, and gave maverick Ross Perot 30.4 percent of its vote in 1992 — slightly more than George H. W. Bush, whose family had a long history there — and 14.2 percent four years later.
The state is urban and often liberal in the south, which looks and feels like a suburb of Boston, but conservative and traditional in its northern reaches, where the paper industry and agriculture still dominate.
"Maine voters don't like highly partisan politicians," said Mark Brewer, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine. "What they want most is someone who's pragmatic."
All three GOP mavericks fit that description.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2009