By Marc A. Thiessen
Tuesday, November 9, 2010;
She wasn't on the ballot last week, but Tuesday was a bad night for Sen. Olympia Snowe. With conservative insurgents taking on GOP incumbents across the country, Snowe is a prime target for a Tea Party challenge in 2012. To fend off such a challenge, Snowe might have pointed to the failed candidacy of Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and warned Tea Party activists that if they want to hand a Republican seat to the Democrats the best way to do it would be to replace her on the ballot.
But that argument lost some of its currency when Tea Party favorite Paul LePage was elected Maine's first Republican governor since 1995. LePage campaigned on a promise to "shrink the size and scope of government" and "reverse the direction of the state" - and narrowly won the governorship on a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm that also swept Republican majorities into office in both houses of the state legislature. With LePage's election, Snowe can no longer claim that a conservative cannot win statewide in Maine - or that replacing her on the ballot would necessarily be electoral suicide for the GOP.
And replacing Snowe is precisely what Maine Republicans want to do. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that only 29 percent of GOP voters support Snowe for reelection, while 63 percent want a more conservative candidate. These numbers mean trouble for Snowe, and they reflect the growing influence of the Tea Party in the Maine GOP. Tea Party activists not only helped secure the gubernatorial nomination for LePage, they took control of the state convention last summer, replacing the party's moderate platform with one reflecting Tea Party ideals. Fiscal conservatives are ascendant and emboldened in Maine, which means that Snowe could very well be denied the Republican nomination in 2012.
What are Snowe's options? One possibility would be for Snowe to defect to the Democratic Party. She enjoys 59 percent approval among Maine Democrats (making her far more popular with the opposition party than her own). But as Arlen Specter showed, switching parties does not necessarily guarantee winning a Democratic Senate nomination. Snowe could face a tough primary fight regardless of whether she runs as a Democrat or a Republican.
Another option would be for Snowe to fight for the Republican nomination and if she loses follow the example of Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and run as an independent, hoping to prevail in a three-way race. But a multi-candidate race is also the best hope for a conservative insurgent to capture Snowe's Senate seat. After squandering an early 20-point lead, LePage narrowly won the governorship in a five-way contest with 38.33 percent of the vote - defeating independent Eliot Cutler (36.49 percent), Democrat Libby Mitchell (19.12 percent) and two other independents (6 percent). The more candidates who get into the race and divide the state's majority of liberal and moderate voters, the more likely a Tea Party-backed Republican can prevail.
Much depends on whether a credible challenger emerges to take on Snowe. Conservative businessman Scott D'Amboise has declared his candidacy, but he was flattened 70 percent to 30 percent in his 2006 campaign for the House of Representatives. Another potential challenger is conservative former state senator Chandler Woodcock, the GOP's 2006 gubernatorial nominee, who leads Snowe by five points in a hypothetical match-up. Andrew Ian Dodge, Maine coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, says other candidates will soon declare their intention to challenge Snowe. "She is beatable," Dodge says, but "it will take money to beat her." Tea Partyers, he says, "don't want a quixotic candidate who beats her [in the primary] and then gets creamed in a general."
Right now, Snowe is still trying to convince Tea Partyers that she is one of them. She campaigned for LePage, and she recently told the Wall Street Journal, "The Tea Party is right. We've lost our way on fiscal issues," adding, "I have always been a budget hawk." She will have a chance to put those words into action in a lame-duck session of Congress, which must take up the extension of the Bush tax cuts and all the spending bills left unfinished by the outgoing Congress. However she votes in a lame duck, Tea Partyers are not likely to forget that Snowe was one of only three Republicans who voted for President Obama's $800 billion-plus stimulus, the largest spending bill in history and whose passage gave rise to the Tea Party movement. And while she voted "no" on final passage, Tea Partyers are well aware that she provided the only Republican vote for Obamacare in the Senate Finance Committee. Convincing Maine Republicans that she is a fiscal conservative will be a hard sell.
When the GOP had just 41 senators and needed Snowe to stand firm against increased spending, she sided with the Democrats. Now that Snowe needs to burnish her fiscal conservative credentials, she is tacking to the right - but the irony is, Republicans don't need her vote anymore. With the GOP's Senate ranks now at 46, Snowe will no longer be the "swing vote" that decides the fate of key legislation. Back when she held that deciding vote, pundits called her "The Most Powerful Senator." But, if Maine Republicans have their way, in two years' time she might not be a senator at all.
Marc A. Thiessen is a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and writes a weekly column for The Post.