Bolstered by Republican Paul LePage’s victory last month, Republican and tea party activists are hoping to carry the conservative momentum into 2012 by unseating moderate U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe during the GOP primary.
But despite a declared Republican opponent and rumors of at least one more, several activists acknowledged it will be a difficult task and that they are still looking for other viable candidates.
“I would be surprised if there is going to be anybody formidable in the primary,” said Jonathan Reisman, a University of Maine-Machias professor active in Republican politics.
“She put a lot of work into getting [LePage] and Republican legislators elected in the state, and that won’t be forgotten.”
For that reason, Reisman, who does not support Snowe, said he wasn’t surprised that LePage unequivocally endorsed her. Snowe campaigned for LePage, who also credits her late husband, Peter Snowe, with helping him get into and pay for college.
The early endorsement surprised and angered some tea party members, who have often criticized the moderate Republican for negotiating with Democrats on health care reform and the Obama financial stimulus package.
Polls suggest that Snowe, often at the center of major political battles in recent years, remains popular with many Maine voters, including Democrats. A September survey by Public Policy Polling showed that 59 percent of Democrats viewed her favorably.
Among Republicans, however, Snowe had a disapproval rating of 51 percent, giving some conservatives hope that the three-term senator could be at risk in the 2012 GOP primary.
“Two years in politics is an eternity,” said Mark Brewer, a University of Maine political science professor. “If she had been running in the primary in 2010 against a qualified, tea party-backed candidate, I think she might have been in trouble.”
Maine’s numerous tea party groups were often credited with helping lay the grass-roots groundwork that led to LePage’s commanding victory in the June 2010 gubernatorial primary. Tea party activists and Maine Republicans were further emboldened last month when LePage captured the Blaine House — albeit by a slim mar-gin — and the GOP captured control of both chambers of the State House for the first time in decades.
Now, tea party members are turning their attention on 2012.
“Yes, we are definitely looking for somebody that would have the name recognition and ability to not just unseat her in the primary but also win in the general election,” said Pete “The Carpenter” Harring, a prominent member of Maine Refounders and the Maine Tea Party.
Finding the right person is a challenge, however, Harring acknowledged.
“There are a lot of people who would be interested in the seat. They are just not interested in going up against Snowe,” said Harring, who created a “Mainers for Snowe Removal” group on the Maine Tea Party-Maine Refounders website.
For her part, Snowe is mindful both of the 2010 election results and her constituents’ wishes, her spokesman said.
“We are paying attention to what we’re hearing and what we are seeing in the news,” said John Gentzel, Snowe’s communications director. “At the same time, right now, we’re also focusing on jobs and the economy. After the electorate spoke last month, that is what people said they wanted.”
Maine’s senior senator actually already has a declared primary challenger. Lisbon Falls resident Scott D’Amboise, who previously ran for Congress, announced his candidacy against Snowe in February — more than two years before the 2012 GOP primary.
D’Amboise, a small-business owner who ran for Congress in 2006, has been campaigning part time since then, concentrating much of his efforts on meetings of tea party or constitutionalist groups.
“We have been grass-rooting,” D’Amboise said. “I plan to go from Madawaska to Kittery, from Eastport to Fryeburg. That’s why I got out early. My plan is to get to every town I can.”
But D’Amboise is by no means a big-name candidate and it’s unclear whether he will be able to garner the big bucks needed to challenge a well-established incumbent like Snowe.
Joe DeCoste, an active member of Maine’s tea party movement, said he is personally not sure whom he would like to see challenge Snowe or who he believes would be the most viable candidate. But he added: “We need to do something quick if there is going to be any change.”
Ratcheting up that pressure, national conservative and tea party groups are eager to get into the fight in Maine, according to DeCoste. So as he talks to grass-roots groups around the state, DeCoste stresses the urgency of preparing now.
“There is going to be a lot of money coming into this state because there is such a national backlash against Senator Snowe,” DeCoste said. “I get phone calls from as far away as Texas asking, ‘What are you going to do about Senator Snowe?’”
Harring said he hears similar comments from non-Mainers asking about plans to challenge both Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, another moderate Republican who has not been averse to crossing party lines during her career.
“I believe there will be substantial amounts of support and money coming from outside of the state of Maine” to challenge Snowe, Harring said.
Since the election, another tea party activist has manufactured a bit of a media buzz — mostly in Washington, D.C.-based publications — about a second mystery challenger.
Andrew Ian Dodge, state coordinator for the national Tea Party Patriots, said he has had extensive conversations with a candidate. But Dodge, a polarizing figure within Maine’s tea party movement, refuses to identify the individual, saying only that he is from southern Maine, has good name recognition and would be able to generate the funds needed to challenge Snowe.
Dodge’s public statements have frustrated and even angered other tea party members, who have accused him of being a publicity hound who doesn’t contribute to local tea party efforts in Maine. Others, including Harring, believe Dodge has been talking to himself about running and is merely trying to draw more attention to po-tential candidacy.
“I think his heart is in the right place, but he does not participate in a lot of our activities,” DeCoste said of Dodge.
Pressed repeatedly about whether he is planning to run, Dodge dodged the question, saying he would not deny or acknowledge anything and added that “the person has a plan and is sticking to it,” he said. But he also acknowledged that he is enjoying the speculation.
“At this time, I’m a freelance writer and Maine coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots,” Dodge said. “And for the time being, that is what I’m going to continue to do.”