Republicans last week painted the country’s northeastern corner red last week, grabbing control of the state House, Senate and governor’s mansion in Maine for the first time in more than four decades in a stunning electoral sweep.
But the GOP wins might be worrisome news for the state’s GOP senior senator, opening up the possibility of a 2012 primary challenge to moderate three-term Sen. Olympia J. Snowe now that state voters have shown that a fiscal conservative can win in a statewide contest.
“There is going to be a primary, and she is going to have at least one ‘tea party’ candidate against her. If it is done correctly, she can be beaten,” said Andrew Ian Dodge, the coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. “She is definitely the next target.”
The midterm election results in Maine mirrored the outcome in at least 19 other states, where the GOP generally rode a more conservative message to majorities in state legislatures and in successful gubernatorial bids. Although Maine’s two Democratic U.S. House members were also re-elected, the last time the Maine Republicans enjoyed such dominance at the state level was during the Johnson administration.
The Maine wave propelled Paul LePage, the conservative Republican mayor of Waterville, into the governor’s mansion, and ousted Democratic majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.
While it is unclear who might oppose Mrs. Snowe, at least a couple tea party members are weighing a bid, Mr. Dodge said.
While Mrs. Snowe has gained respect and clout in Washington as a centrist willing to work across party lines, she also has attracted her fair share of detractors along the way. She was one of the few Republicans to vote for President Obama’s $814 billion economic stimulus package, a measure widely loathed in tea party circles.
A September survey of 584 GOP primary voters from Public Policy Polling found that by a 63 percent to 29 percent margin they would elect a more conservative alternative to Mrs. Snowe if given the opportunity in the next election. The poll even suggested that her chances of re-election would significantly improve if she ran as independent.
State Rep. Steven J. Butterfield II, Bangor Democrat, who lost his re-election bid, said that the recent political shakeup gives Maine Republicans a rare chance to groom political talent for future races - a process that could lead to the emergence of a more conservative member of the party to take on Mrs. Snowe in a primary.
“Now that they have a deep bench, now that they have the Senate, and they’ve tasted blood, if somebody really serious … hopped in against Sen. Snowe, she might be sweating a little bit today,” he said. “If somebody serious could get in against her, she might really have some trouble in the primary.”
The irony is that Mrs. Snowe might have more trouble winning her party’s primary than she would winning the general election.
“If she survives the primary, she is unstoppable, she is bullet-proof,” Mr. Butterfield said.
The same dynamic was seen this year in a number of other states, where other moderate establishment Republicans were knocked off this year in primaries by unheralded tea party-backed insurgents.
Those candidates saw mixed results on Election Day. In Senate races, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Colorado’s Ken Buck and Nevada’s Sharron Angle all went down to defeat, while Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey and Florida’s Marco Rubio marched to victory.