Republicans last week painted the country’s northeastern corner red last week, grabbing control of the state House, Senate and governor’s mansion in Maine for the first time in more than four decades in a stunning electoral sweep.
But the GOP wins might be worrisome news for the state’s GOP senior senator, opening up the possibility of a 2012 primary challenge to moderate three-term Sen. Olympia J. Snowe now that state voters have shown that a fiscal conservative can win in a statewide contest.
“There is going to be a primary, and she is going to have at least one ‘tea party’ candidate against her. If it is done correctly, she can be beaten,” said Andrew Ian Dodge, the coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. “She is definitely the next target.”
The midterm election results in Maine mirrored the outcome in at least 19 other states, where the GOP generally rode a more conservative message to majorities in state legislatures and in successful gubernatorial bids. Although Maine’s two Democratic U.S. House members were also re-elected, the last time the Maine Republicans enjoyed such dominance at the state level was during the Johnson administration.
The Maine wave propelled Paul LePage, the conservative Republican mayor of Waterville, into the governor’s mansion, and ousted Democratic majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.
While it is unclear who might oppose Mrs. Snowe, at least a couple tea party members are weighing a bid, Mr. Dodge said.
While Mrs. Snowe has gained respect and clout in Washington as a centrist willing to work across party lines, she also has attracted her fair share of detractors along the way. She was one of the few Republicans to vote for President Obama’s $814 billion economic stimulus package, a measure widely loathed in tea party circles.
The results - and post-election polls - do not bode well for Mrs. Snowe, a career politician first elected to the Senate in 1994.
A September survey of 584 GOP primary voters from Public Policy Polling found that by a 63 percent to 29 percent margin they would elect a more conservative alternative to Mrs. Snowe if given the opportunity in the next election. The poll even suggested that her chances of re-election would significantly improve if she ran as independent.
State Rep. Steven J. Butterfield II, Bangor Democrat, who lost his re-election bid, said that the recent political shakeup gives Maine Republicans a rare chance to groom political talent for future races - a process that could lead to the emergence of a more conservative member of the party to take on Mrs. Snowe in a primary.
“Now that they have a deep bench, now that they have the Senate, and they’ve tasted blood, if somebody really serious … hopped in against Sen. Snowe, she might be sweating a little bit today,” he said. “If somebody serious could get in against her, she might really have some trouble in the primary.”
The irony is that Mrs. Snowe might have more trouble winning her party’s primary than she would winning the general election.
“If she survives the primary, she is unstoppable, she is bullet-proof,” Mr. Butterfield said.
The same dynamic was seen this year in a number of other states, where other moderate establishment Republicans were knocked off this year in primaries by unheralded tea party-backed insurgents.
Those candidates saw mixed results on Election Day. In Senate races, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Colorado’s Ken Buck and Nevada’s Sharron Angle all went down to defeat, while Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Florida’s Marco Rubio marched to victory.
In Alaska, a classic battle between a tea party-backed challenger, Joe Miller, and incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, running a write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary to Mr. Miller, remains too close to call.
A fierce post-midterm debate has broken out over whether the tea party - while supplying energy and votes across the country for the GOP - might have cost Republicans control of the Senate, when more moderate candidates might have won in states such as Delaware, Nevada and Colorado.
Some New England Republicans fear the same dynamic may repeat itself in 2012, if Mrs. Snowe is ousted.
“Two months ago, I would have said for sure [Mrs. Snowe] is going to get taken out from the right in a Republican primary in 2012 and be the next tea party victim,” said pollster Tom Jensen, of Public Policy Polling. “But what is going to be interesting to see moving toward the 2012 cycle is whether the tea party is a little more selective about what states it goes into after seeing what happens in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware.”
For years, Maine was a reliably Republican state. It was one of just two states to vote against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in his landslide re-election victory in 1936.
Before 1954, when Democrat Edmund S. Muskie won, Republicans only tasted defeat in five governor’s elections, which at the time had been held every two years.
In the ensuing years, Republicans emerged victorious in only four gubernatorial campaigns. Mr. LePage will be the state’s first GOP candidate to win the governor’s race in 20 years, when John McKernan, Mrs. Snowe’s husband, won a second term in office.
Lance Dutson, a spokesman for the Maine GOP, agreed that the election “absolutely” is going to help cultivate future leaders for the party, but also noted that the “other side of that is we have to do the job, and there is a whole another set of challenges with it.”
After vowing to reduce taxes, cut spending and improve the state’s poor business climate, Mr. LePage and the Republican-dominated Legislature now face a projected $1 billion budget shortfall while protecting the state’s relatively low 6.5 percent unemployment rate.
“I think it is the beginning of getting a ship righted that has been pointed in the wrong direction for a long time,” Mr. Dutson said.
Asked about Mrs. Snowe’s future, he said he expects this year strengthened her chances of re-election.
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