Since 1978, Olympia Snowe’s name has been on a ballot 11 times for a seat in either the U.S. House or the U.S. Senate.
So far, the moderate Republican has never lost an election.
During her eight terms in the House, Snowe’s closest race was in 1990 when she narrowly defeated Democrat Patrick McGowan, 51 percent to 49 percent.
The first time she ran for Senate in 1994, Snowe defeated then 1st-District Congressman Tom Andrews with 60 percent of the vote. Since then, she’s increased her support to 69 percent in 2000 and 74 percent in 2006.
As she has grown more powerful, Snowe’s challengers have grown less prominent. After Andrews, Snowe was challenged in 2000 by former Maine Senate President Mark Lawrence.
In 2006, her Democratic opponent was Jean Hay Bright, who had never held public office.
The 2012 race began to take shape last week when two Democrats — former Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap of Old Town and state Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland — entered the race. Snowe also faces a primary challenge from tea party-backed candidates Scott D’Amboise and Andrew Ian Dodge.
But with just about one year to go until the election, the real question is: Do her opponents matter or is her re-election a foregone conclusion?
Veteran political watchers seem to think Snowe is about as safe as any incumbent out there.
“She fits the profile of what most Mainers identify with,” said Christian Potholm, a political scientist at Bowdoin College and a Republican strategist. “I don’t think she’s any less popular now than she’s been in previous elections.”
Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College and a Democrat, went one step further.
“She’s the most popular politician I’ve seen in the 40 years I’ve been in Maine,” he said.
A poll conducted late last week after Dunlap and Hinck entered the race suggested that Snowe would have a big advantage over either Democrat.
Still, there is a long road between now and next November.
Justin Brasell, Snowe’s 2012 recently named campaign manager, has worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee and on the campaigns of Sen. John Thune of South Dakota and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Brasell said Snowe has never taken an election for granted and doesn’t plan to in 2012.
“I think she relishes the opportunity to make her case to voters and showcase all that she’s accomplished for Maine,” he said.
But there are chinks in Snowe’s armor as she prepares to defend her Senate seat, first against two primary challengers and then against a Democratic opponent.
The more conservative members of her party have called her a RINO, or Republican in Name Only, for years and the emergence of the tea party has created a problem on Snowe’s right.
On the left, Democrats perhaps can make their best case yet that Snowe is a career politician, emblematic of what’s wrong with Washington, D.C.
“On a personal level, I like her,” said Hinck. “But voters should be asking ‘What are we going to do to right the ship and move forward?’ This isn’t a popularity contest.”
Both conservative Republicans and Democrats have argued that Snowe’s voting record changes in an election year. Maisel said that’s true to some degree but he doesn’t think Snowe has wavered far from her beliefs.
“Her votes are a pendulum. She moves to the left and right when it suits her and that has made her a centrist.” he said. “But one of the criticisms she’s gotten from her own party is that she votes with them when it doesn’t matter.”
Still, Snowe returns to Maine often and meets with constituents freely. She was in Topsham on Saturday.
Potholm said if Snowe was truly vulnerable in 2012, the Democrats would find as strong a candidate as possible, someone like Chellie Pingree or Mike Michaud. Neither one of Maine’s Democratic U.S. House members are likely to leave their day job to challenge Snowe.
And even though Snowe’s unfavorables might be higher this year than ever before, Maisel said he doesn’t expect her to take too much criticism.
“I think if you run against Snowe and you attack her in any way, if reflects worse on the attacker than it does on her,” he said.
There is precedent in Maine for a popular incumbent to lose an election. In the last 40 years, a sitting senator has lost twice.
In 1972, Democrat William Hathaway dethroned legendary Maine politician Margaret Chase Smith.
Six years later, it was Hathaway who was ousted, this time by another well-known Maine Republican, William Cohen.
Democrats Dunlap and Hinck, whose names were thrust into the race last week, insist they are in the race to win.
“Voters need to see a truly viable alternative, otherwise its ‘Why are we having an election?’” said Dunlap. “Her message has to be: There is no reason to change. I think there are reasons.”
Hinck agreed and said Snowe is indicative of why so many Americans are fed up with Congress.
“I think she represents the misplaced priorities that are coming out of Washington,” said Hinck.
Some think Snowe might have more trouble in the primary than the general election, but political watchers aren’t buying that.
The two primary challengers, D’Amboise and Dodge, both have tea party support but neither has held office before.
In 2006, D’Amboise ran against incumbent Mike Michaud to represent Maine’s 2nd Congressional District. He lost 70-30.
“Maybe if there was one strong candidate, but I think there are two weak candidates,” Maisel said.
Potholm suggested that Snowe’s challengers may have others reasons for running a campaign.
“There are lots of people who run for office who don’t expect to win elections,” Potholm said. “In some cases, it’s a great ego trip. In some cases, it’s a cause thing.”
Dunlap, however, said he’s not taking Hinck lightly and he doesn’t believe Snowe should take her primary challengers lightly either.
Even with most watchers predicting a Snowe re-election already, the senator is raising money as though she’s a hungry freshman lawmaker and taking every opportunity to ensure that 2012 will not be her first election defeat.
In the third quarter alone, Snowe raised nearly $800,000, according to campaign finance reports, bringing her total to $3.2 million. During her entire 2006 campaign, Snowe raised less than $4 million but still dwarfed her opponent, Hay Bright, who raised only about $125,000.
Her primary challenger, D’Amboise, a small business owner from Lisbon Falls, raised more than $223,000 during the third quarter but appeared to spend a good amount of that money.
As of Sept. 30, D’Amboise had only $182,000 in his coffers. Dodge, hasn’t even filed a campaign finance report.
So, why is Snowe raising so much money?
Maisel said, aside from being popular, Snowe is a smart politician.
“She saw what happened to [Michael] Castle in Delaware,” he said, referring to the moderate Republican and nine-term U.S. Representative who lost in a 2010 primary to conservative darling Christine O’Donnell.
Snowe’s challengers are well aware of her fundraising and campaigning abilities.
“I’ve had to raise money before, but now I have to raise more in one day than I did for an entire campaign,” Dunlap said. “Is it daunting? Yes, but there’s a way to do it. I can’t be worried about matching her dollar for dollar.”
Since Dunlap and Hinck have just started their campaign, they haven’t filed any campaign finance reports. Because the two will likely square off in a primary, each may have to spend a significant amount of money just to get to Snowe.
The wild card in the 2012 Senate race is time. The political landscape could change drastically in the next 12 months. Things could emerge that weaken Snowe.
Earlier this year, her husband, former Maine governor John McKernan, found himself at the center of a lawsuit involving Pittsburgh-based Education Management Corp. Some of her opponents will no doubt use that to go after Snowe. D’Amboise already has.
Brasell is not concerned.
“We’ll be prepared to defend whatever her opponents’ charge,” he said.
With Congress’ approval rating so low, it’s hard to imagine that won’t improve, but anti-incumbency sentiment could persist into next year.
Brasell said Snowe is just as frustrated as voters with the lack of action in Washington but is committed to getting things done.