December 12, 2010

MIKE TIPPING: Re-election worries may be behind Snowe’s shift to the right

There has been plenty of talk lately about Sen. Olympia Snowe facing a Tea Party-backed challenge in the 2012 Republican primary.

With Snowe’s high popularity and strong electoral track record (she won her last two races with 69 percent and 74 percent of the vote), a credible challenge for the nomination would have seemed laughable even a few months ago. Since then, however, we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party as a force within the Maine GOP.

After the takeover of the Maine Republican convention and rewriting of the platform by conservative activists, the overwhelming success of Tea Party-backed candidate (and now Governor-elect) Paul LePage in the Republican primary and public opinion polls showing her losing support among members of her own party, the possibility of a credible challenge seems much less remote.

At least one person seems to be taking this threat seriously — the senator herself — and over the last few days and weeks she has shifted to the right on a host of important issues.

In 2007, Snowe cast a procedural vote in favor of the DREAM Act, legislation that would allow children of undocumented immigrants who have grown up in America to gain their citizenship through military service or college education. This week, she released a statement in opposition and voted it down.

In 2003, she voted against the Bush tax cuts, leading to a tie vote in the Senate that was broken by Dick Cheney. Now, she not only supports the extension of those same tax cuts, but signed a letter saying she would not allow any other legislation to pass the chamber until specific tax breaks were passed for those making more than $250,000 a year.

 On tax cuts, Snowe’s concerns about the deficit seem to have disappeared. They reappear, however, as soon as she starts talking about the effort to extend jobless benefits for those who have been laid off during the recession, a measure that would cost much less and do much more for the economy than more tax cuts for the wealthy.

 In years past, Snowe has been considered a supporter of equal rights for gays and lesbians, and received high ratings from groups such as the Human Rights Campaign.

Last week, however, she voted against repealing “don’t ask don’t tell,” which would have allowed gay and lesbian servicemembers to serve openly in the military. Snowe claims that her vote was based on procedural concerns and not just the merits of the bill, but her colleague Susan Collins, who was much more vocal about procedural issues, voted in favor.

The vote also came despite a comprehensive survey showing the military would not be affected negatively by the change, the agreement of top military commanders with the policy and the support of 67 percent of the American public, according to the latest Gallup poll.

And those are just examples from the past few days.

In addition to tacking to the right on policy issues, Snowe also help securing her right flank from LePage, who declared his support for Snowe this week. He says his connection to Snowe goes deeper than mere policy and began when her first husband, who later died, helped him gain admission to Husson College as a young man.

LePage’s expression of support for Snowe has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some Tea Partiers, who say he had previously pledged to support Snowe’s opponent.

In fact, Scott D’amboise, so far the only announced opponent to Snowe for the 2012 Republican nomination, says LePage personally guaranteed him his support on more than one occasion.

“At the Dover Tea Party, Paul and I talked and he said, ‘After I get elected, I will do all that I can to get you elected.’ I had a campaign worker witness this statement,” explained D’Amboise by e-mail. “In Poland, I talked with Paul in the entry of the Poland resort. I told him I was working hard to get him elected and he said, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’ He then said, ‘And I will help you after this is over.’”

 It remains to be seen if these new policy shifts and political alliances will shield Snowe from a challenge on her right. So far, no challenger with the political support and resources necessary to make a serious play for the nomination has emerged.

If one does, however, it will make Maine’s Senate race a focus of national attention in 2012 and could change how we think about Maine’s moderate politics.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at, his own blog at and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter.

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