May 17, 2011

MIKE TIPPING: Snowe vulnerable in spite of popularity, conservative trends

Mike Tipping

Republicans like Olympia Snowe.

So do Democrats, independents, the young, the old, the middle-aged, men and women and people in both northern and southern Maine.

In fact, according to a new poll released on Friday by the Maine People's Resource Center, an organization I work for, supporters of the tea party are the only ones who don't give Snowe a job approval rating of at least 60 percent. But even a plurality of them say she's doing a good job as senator.

It's not surprising that Republicans and conservatives approve of Snowe's recent conduct, since she's been voting the tea party line on almost every issue. She voted for the House Republican budget that would defund Planned Parenthood and supported legislation banning the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

The Washington Post notes that Snowe has voted with her party 91 percent of the time since 2010, compared to just 69 percent in the previous Congress.

In spite this shift to the right that seems designed to head off a primary challenge and the continued good feelings of Maine Republicans (63.4 percent of whom approve of her job performance), Snowe still isn't out of the woods for her re-election bid next year.

A plurality of Republicans surveyed said they would support an unnamed "more conservative challenger" over Maine's senior senator in a primary matchup (47.7 percent would vote for a challenger, 46.7 percnt would back Snowe, and 5.6 percent were undecided.

The good news for Snowe, however, is that her announced primary challengers so far aren't unnamed.

They're just unknown or untrusted.

Snowe trounces her opponents in a three-way race against Scott D'Amboise and Andrew Ian Dodge, both of whom seek to claim the tea party mantle in their challenge of Snowe in 2012.

D'Amboise receives only 8 percent of the vote Republican vote and Dodge 4.2 percent, while Snowe gets 49.5 percent. This result comes despite the fact that both D'Amboise, a small business owner, and Dodge, a science fiction author and tea party spokesman, have been campaigning for months.

What has to worry Snowe, however, is that even in this scenario, 38.3 percent of Republicans are undecided, and she sits below the mystical 50 percent mark where political pundits often consider incumbents relatively safe from a successful challenge.

The overall message of the numbers seems to be that while her current opponents aren't much of a threat, there's still an opportunity for a conservative challenger.

The most threatening candidate would be someone who had enough tea party bona fides to unite the right and enough personal wealth to stay somewhat competitive (not an easy task -- Snowe has been chalking up record fundraising totals). Only a few things would have to break the way of the right candidate for that person to win the primary.

One of those breaks may have come earlier this month, when the Department of Justice joined a lawsuit against Education Management Corp., a company that manages a chain of for-profit colleges. Former Maine Gov. John McKernan, Snowe's husband, is chairman of the board of the publicly traded company.

The lawsuit accuses EDMC of defrauding the government of financial aid funding by engaging in the illegal practice of paying recruiters bonuses and other compensation based on the number of students they enrolled.

Snowe and McKernan have made millions of dollars from company stock.

So far, only the national political media has paid the story much attention. Most of the local headlines the lawsuit has generated was about a trading of insults between Snowe and D'Amboise, with the tea party challenger calling on her to resign, and Snowe accusing him of smears and libel in return. The lawsuit itself hasn't been reported on.

This kind of controversy, however, could provide the toehold a challenger needs to begin the climb against Snowe, especially if the lawsuit reveals more evidence of wrongdoing or the Maine media gets interested in the story.

The race for 2012 likely will be decided over the next few days and weeks. If Snowe can make some headway in her attempts to reach out to the tea party, continue to raise huge sums of money, and keep her name free of scandal, she may be able to scare off any real competition and beat Dodge and D'Am-boise easily next year.

If not, and a more credible challenger enters the race in order to take advantage of these numbers, then things will get very interesting, very quickly.

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

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