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Right time for Snowe switch

Two weeks ago, no-name candidate Joe Miller shocked the political world by ousting incumbent Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary. Miller’s success followed on the heels of successful conservative takeovers in Pennsylvania (Sen. Arlen Specter), Florida (Gov. Charlie Crist), Utah (Sen. Bob Bennett) and other races at all levels of government around the country.

The overall trend is unmistakable — the GOP’s radical fringe has decided that its party’s establishment are ideological apostates and is systematically purging them. And while the primary season is now over this cycle, there’s at least one Republican who has to be rethinking her party allegiance just about now: Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Snowe faces reelection in 2012, and her genuinely moderate credentials — while popular with her state’s overall electorate — are proving electoral poison within her own party. Pollsters at Public Policy Polling tested her viability in early September and found Republican voters in her state want a more conservative alternative by a 63-29 margin. (Disclosure: While Public Policy Polling polls for Daily Kos, I did not commission the Maine poll referenced.)

While one could argue that Snowe should be OK given the dearth of high-profile conservative challengers in her state, the success of both Alaska’s Miller and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell should disabuse anyone of that notion. The Tea Party contingent measures viability through ideological fealty, not a list of accomplishments or an impressive résumé, and they are now capable of taking political non-entities and turning them into credible challengers overnight. Maine is fertile territory for the Tea Party crowd. Indeed, they have already taken over the state GOP.

 Maine’s new Republican Party platform, adopted this summer, states that “The Tea Party movement is reminiscent of the principled revolt that led to the birth of the Republican Party in 1854,” which isn’t surprising because the Tea Party contingent essentially wrote the entire platform. That includes rejection of U.N. treaties on the Rights of Children and the Law of the Sea, calls for the adoption of “Austrian Economics” (which includes the elimination of state-issued money in exchange for a gold standard), demands for the elimination of the Federal Reserve Bank and the Department of Education and calls for an investigation into “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth.” 

All of that craziness is well within the Maine GOP mainstream — PPP’s polling finds that 69 percent of Maine Republicans describe themselves as “conservative,” while only 30 percent are moderates. 

Meanwhile, Snowe’s lifetime ratings from the American Conservative Union are under 50 percent, while the ACLU has given her a 70 percent rating. She gets a 95 percent from NARAL, and just a 22 percent from the Family Research Council. Her 73 percent from the League of Conservation Voters is decidedly non-conservative, as is her 35 percent from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. With numbers like that, she is DOA in a GOP primary.

Even more so than Arlen Specter or Charlie Crist, Snowe will have to decide quickly whether she wants to face humiliating defeat in a GOP primary, or switch early. Both Specter and Crist changed parties too late to establish credibility with progressive voters. Their decisions had the whiff of desperation.

Snowe doesn’t have to make the same mistake. An early switch (or move to Independent, caucusing with the Democrats) would give her two years to build her more progressive bona fides (by deed and vote), while the radicalization of her party would give her the perfect pretext. 

It’s the only way she’ll still be a senator in 2013. 

Moulitsas is the founder of Daily Kos and author of American Taliban: How War, Sex, Sin and Power Bind Jihadists and the Radical Right.