February 20, 2011

MIKE TIPPING: Preparing for challenges in 2012, Snowe starts sliding slightly right

Mike Tipping

Sen. Olympia Snowe's position as a relative moderate within the Republican caucus has been cause for years of simmering conservative resentment.

Her votes in favor of President George W. Bush's TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bill and President Barack Obama's stimulus package, as well as a vote in favor of a health care reform bill at the committee level, have made her a major target of the tea party movement, both nationally and in Maine.

Last week, Snowe got her second announced Republican challenger for 2012, a tea party activist and self-published science fiction author named Andrew Ian Dodge. Dodge declared his candidacy in Washington D.C. at a conservative conference, causing a brief flurry of stories in national blogs and Maine newspapers.

Scott D'Amboise, a technician at an eye care practice who lost in a landslide to U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in 2006, announced last year that he will run against Snowe.

In my opinion, neither of these candidates has much hope of defeating Snowe, regardless of the recent successes of the tea party in Maine. In spite of having apparently been campaigning for a year now, D'Amboise has virtually no name recognition and shows no signs of having attracted the kind of grass-roots support that it would take to win an insurgent primary campaign.

Dodge is more well-known among tea partiers, but that's not necessarily a good thing. While he has attracted attention as an outspoken proponent of libertarian principles, his fellow conservatives in Maine seem less than impressed with him and some are outright hostile.

Online, the reaction to Dodge's announcement has been tepid.

"I appreciate this guy's sincerity, and I am all for Snowe removal, but we need someone a little more polished, methinks," wrote one commenter in a tea party forum. "If any significant part of the tea party in Maine gets behind this OBVIOUS PLANT, it will be a tragedy," wrote another.

The weakness of Snowe's challengers so far, however, doesn't mean that she shouldn't be concerned for her re-election. With a recent poll showing 63 percent of Republicans saying they'd vote against her in a primary, there may be an opportunity for one of these unlikely contenders to somehow catch fire. Also, there's still plenty of time for a more serious candidate to emerge.

Of the 12 sitting Republican U.S. senators who ran for re-election in 2010, two were defeated after tea party-backed primary challenges. In both cases -- Mike Lee's campaign against Bob Bennett in Utah and Joe Miller's against Lisa Murkowski in Alaska -- the challengers announced in the same year as the election. Miller didn't announce until April for an August primary.

Political consultant Dennis Bailey, of Cutler Files fame, wrote on his blog recently that Eric Cianchette, the cousin of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Peter Cianchette, is considering challenging Snowe.

Cianchette, who lives in Falmouth, is best known for his real estate development on Portland's waterfront and his support for conservative causes. With his personal wealth and recognizable name, he likely could offer Snowe some real competition.

Snowe seems to be taking these threats to her Senate tenure seriously. She has been voting more conservatively recently, even going so far as to change her positions on the DREAM act and the Bush-era tax cuts, and also has been reaching out to the tea partiers.

She has been meeting with conservative groups in Maine and recently responded to a series of questions from a tea party organization.

She took the opportunity to express strong opposition to the Affordable Care Act and also pledged her support for making sure Islamic Sharia law doesn't infiltrate American courts (in the process giving credence to the strange tea party conspiracy theories about a secret Muslim infiltration of our legal codes).

While Dodge's candidacy might not have Snowe shaking in her boots, another announcement made last week may give her more reason for concern. The national group Tea Party Express sent out a release declaring that she will be one of their top targets for 2012.

The organization is described by the Washington, D.C., newspaper Roll Call as "arguably the most organized and best funded campaign tool in the tea party movement" and is well known for funneling money to Miller's successful primary challenge as well as Christine O'Donnell's campaign in Delaware.

Snowe is a smart, practiced politician with plenty of institutional support, but if a candidate emerges who can harness both local grass-roots conservative agitation and national tea party money, 2012 could become quite a race.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People's Alliance and the Maine People's Resource Center. He's @miketipping on Twitter. email: miketipping@gmail.com

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