TRENTON, Maine — The Tea Party movement, whose followers espouse conservatism in a variety of visceral if uncoordinated forms, has plenty of enthusiasm, even here in Maine.
The latest example was an event on Saturday that drew about 300 supporters to the Acadia Christian School. Two weeks earlier, a similar Tea Party attracted 400 people to Old Town.
What remains unclear, though, is whether tea partiers will have any effect on the outcome of state or national elections.
Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, said the Tea Party movement is significant in the sense that people keep turning out in large numbers at events.
“But it’s unclear how coherent their message is at this point,” he said Sunday by telephone. “Will the movement coalesce and become more organized? I think it’s too early to tell.”
The first test of Tea Party relevance could come with the major party primaries in June, and some Republican candidates already are positioning themselves for the support of what appears to be a growing crowd.
Gubernatorial hopefuls Paul LePage and William Beardsley, along with 2nd Congressional District candidate Jason Levesque and U.S. Senate challenger Scott D’Amboise, all spoke on Saturday at the Hancock County Tea Party.
Levesque, who is seeking the seat held by Democrat Mike Michaud, said he wasn’t there to campaign but to introduce himself.
“Frankly, I’m unopposed in the primary, so I don’t need to [campaign],” he said to the crowd gathered inside the Acadia Christian School gymnasium. Levesque used most of his time Saturday to criticize Michaud for his support of the stimulus package, health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation.
D’Amboise, who has announced plans to challenge a member of his own party, Sen. Olympia Snowe, in the 2012 election cycle, didn’t address the senator but took umbrage at those who have called Tea Party supporters radicals and racists.
“That’s not what I see,” he said. “I see fathers and mothers … I see patriots.”
Beardsley and LePage, two of seven Republicans vying to be Maine’s next governor, also had a chance to address a partisan crowd, a majority of whom appeared to be in their 50s and 60s.
Brewer said tea partiers are putting Republican candidates in a real bind.
“Obviously, [candidates] want their support and, in a primary, they almost need it,” the UM political scientist said. “It would be dangerous for any Republican to turn their back on [the Tea Party], but there are also plenty of people who aren’t big fans of Tea Party and many of them will vote in a general election.”
“It is not surprising that Republican candidates are seeking the support of people who identify as part of the Tea Party movement,” added Amy Fried, who also is a political scientist at UMaine. “Polls have shown that these individuals overwhelmingly define themselves as conservatives and overwhelmingly voted for McCain over Obama.”
In addition to the candidates, a number of conservative organizations also were represented at Saturday’s event in Trenton, including the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based think tank; the Maine Patriots; and the local chapter of the 912 Project, which was conceived by talk show host Glenn Beck.
Brewer said the number of groups represented at tea parties suggests that there is no unifying force and no clear individual leader. In the past, grass-roots political movements have rallied around leaders such as George Wallace in the 1960s and Ross Perot in the 1990s.
“[Former vice presidential candidate] Sarah Palin could be and she has become the de facto leader for some, but she didn’t create this movement,” he said.
Recent national polls suggest the Tea Party movement has momentum, including a Rasmussen Reports poll released last week indicating that the Tea Party movement has more support than the Republican Party.
Asked what type of candidate they would support, 23 percent of respondents said they would vote for a candidate affiliated with the “Tea Party,” compared with 18 percent for a Republican candidate. Democratic candidates were preferred by 36 percent of respondents while the rest were undecided. The poll had a 3 percent margin of error.
The poll also showed that 41 percent of all respondents said they had a favorable view of the Tea Party, while only 22 percent characterized their view of the grass-roots movement as unfavorable. Thirty-seven percent were unsure.
Similarly, a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll showed 41 percent of American adults had a positive view of the Tea Party, compared with 35 percent for Democrats and 28 percent for Republicans. The poll had a 3.1 percent margin of error.
“In the context of Maine politics, the Tea Party people are to the right of the average Maine voter and also perhaps the average Republican,” Fried said. “They are certainly more right-wing than the most prominent elected Maine Republicans who would not be in office if they were out of touch with the individuals who vote in Republican primaries.”
When time came Saturday for supporters to say why they attended the Hancock County event, many stood up.
Mike Moreland said he was there because he thinks the world is upside down and he’s disappointed.
Ron Gordon said he hoped that the movement wasn’t just a way to get people fired up but to do what others have done before — make change happen.
A number of local Tea Party groups are planning to protest in Augusta on Thursday, April 15 — a Tax Day Tea Party.