Maine currents, Maine exceptionalism, and the Snowe seat

The Maine currents that kept Olympia Snowe high aloft shifted in recent years and matter for what happens to the Snowe seat.

Although the Tea Party did not threaten Snowe’s renomination in Maine, on the national level and in the U.S. Senate, it made the party a less comfortable place for a New England moderate Republican.

Snowe’s extraordinary political success was supported by a Maine political culture that prized civility, bipartisanship, and clean politics. In an article on Senators Snowe and Collins, my co-author and I wrote:

[M]aintaining a moderate political  career in the current partisan environment is no meager accomplishment.  As one Republican party leadership aide put it, congressional moderates are ―warriors … they come off with a soft veneer but they are political warriors. . .

One element of [Snowe and Collins’s] success and ability to prevail against national tides appears to be embedded in Maine‘s political culture, which eschews negative appeals and promotes pragmatic approaches, and is a defining element of a certain Maine exceptionalism.

Maine was hit by a big political wave in 2010. The national Republican surge hit the Pine Tree state, bringing Republican majorities to the Maine Legislature and the governorship.

What they’ve done will affect what happens to the Snowe seat.

Governor Paul LePage came in with an agenda a lot like other new Republican governors, particularly those linked to the Tea Party: cut taxes and spending on public programs, cut regulations, and reduce public employee pensions. Recently this included big cuts on health care. LePage’s tone has been criticized, even by fellow Republicans, but he has been successful in changing Maine’s policies.

Two new Maine laws stood out in spring 2011: limiting voting and changing health policy. These were passed after Republican leaders put a lot of pressure on moderate Republican legislators.

Both have hurt the Maine Republican party and the politicians most associated with these policies.

On voting, Republicans ended Election Day voter registration. This was overturned by a 60-40 margin in a November 2011 People’s Veto. The restoration of Election Day registration was supported in every state legislative district.  The flow of outside money and deceptive campaign ads in opposition to Election Day registration were decried and, consistent with Maine political culture, critical reactions likely played a role in the win for voting access.

Not only was the policy unpopular, the actions and statements of Maine GOP Chair Charlie Webster and Secretary of State Summers undermined the party’s image. Wild claims about fraud were made by Webster and Summers carried out an investigation of students, sending some students letters in a move decried by many as intimidation.When the Legislature returned in 2012 to take up a Voter Photo Identification bill, Republicans punted.

On health care, the law has already raised costs in rural areas. These are regions that the Republican party needs to maintain its legislative majorities and to win state-wide.

The conduct of the February 2012 Maine GOP caucuses has opened up schisms within the Republican party and further sullied the party’s image.

Too much can be read into special elections, but Democrats’ win of a Republican seat, in a campaign that linked the Republican candidate to Governor LePage, suggests some backlash.

These recent currents most affect Republicans tied to unpopular legislative decisions. In particular, Senate President Kevin Raye, will be linked to these and faces a very difficult and politically perilous state budget to complete.

Now, Democrats have their own issues going forward. But that is a subject for another time.

For now, it’s worth keeping in mind that, should there be a two-way race for the Senate seat (and that’s by no means a sure thing), Republicans will need a candidate who can run as a Snowe Republican. The currents of 2010 affect their ability to field such a candidate.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.