PORTLAND, Maine — Sen. Olympia Snowe’s primary challengers hope to ride conservative momentum driven by Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s strong showing in Maine’s caucuses.
Libertarian tea party activist Andrew Ian Dodge and self-proclaimed conservative constitutionalist Scott D’Amboise both hope to draw support from followers of the libertarian congressman from Texas, as well as self-avowed conservative Rick Santorum. Together they grabbed more votes than first-place finisher Mitt Romney.
Conservatives who’re flexing their muscle in the state party are targeting Snowe, who along with Sen. Susan Collins are among a handful of Republican moderates in the Senate.
During one of his recent stops in Maine, Paul’s state campaign chairman drew cheers when he told 2,000 supporters on a wintry day in Lewiston that it was time for “Snowe removal.”
Snowe, for her part, doesn’t like to be pigeonholed. She considers herself a fiscal conservative while she’s moderate on social issues such as abortion.
“While we may have differences, the undeniable common denominator that binds us is the traditional Republican principles of personal responsibility and limited government,” she said, proclaiming that she’s a lifelong Republican who always has supported fellow Republicans in Maine.
Maine’s Republican Party has undergone a shift to the right that became clear last summer when the tea party commandeered the party platform, going beyond traditional conservative staples to propose abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, sealing the U.S. border and taking steps to eliminate the Federal Reserve.
Many of those same conservative activists were energized during the caucuses, and that fact is not likely be overlooked by Snowe as she faces the first primary challenge of her career.
“It registered on her campaign’s radar, I think we can be fairly certain,” said Mark Brewer, political science professor at the University of Maine.
According to the GOP tally from the caucuses, Paul finished a close second behind winner Mitt Romney, with the tally becoming even closer after Washington County’s snow-postponed results from Saturday were included. Conservative Rick Santorum had a stronger-than-expected showing despite making little effort.
D’Amboise, who has raised more than $500,000 for his campaign, said Republicans are enthusiastic about the three-way GOP Senate primary because they have more conservative alternatives to Snowe.
“Everybody’s frustrated and they want change,” said D’Amboise, who visited a party for Paul supporters after the caucuses.
Dodge, for his part, views himself as a libertarian, so he hopes to get votes from Paul supporters. “The fact that Ron Paul is doing well probably bodes well for me,” he said.
Both would be well served to try to tap into Paul’s grass-roots organization, which was active in Maine in 2008 and is even stronger four years later, Brewer said.
But it remains to be seen whether Republicans hoping for a more reliable conservative than Snowe see a viable candidate in either D’Amboise, who did poorly in 2006 in his 2nd District congressional race, or Dodge, who said he’s having a tough time collecting signatures needed to get on the primary ballot.
Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College, said conservative activists made their mark at the caucuses but the June 12 primary could be a different story because mainstream Republicans will want to rally around a strong candidate who can defeat a Democratic challenger in November.
“There’s a cohort in the party that’s in favor of conservative principles. Whether this group finds a candidate that it considers to be a viable candidate remains to be seen,” he said.
Snowe, for her part, isn’t taking anything for granted.
“She takes the race very seriously, and as she always has, she continues to travel extensively throughout Maine when she doesn’t have to be in Washington. She relishes the opportunity to make her case to voters in both the primary and general elections and will keep working hard to earn the continued confidence and support of Mainers,” said Justin Brasell, her campaign manager.