The next two weeks are going be like nothing we’ve ever seen in Maine politics.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, with the announcement that she has decided not to seek re-election, set off a chain reaction of events that will dominate politics in this state from today until November. One thing is certain: The current field of candidates for U.S. Senate will not stand.
Republican Scott D’Amboise and Democrats Matt Dunlap, Jon Hinck, Cynthia Dill and Ben Pollard will not have the race to themselves. Big names are coming.
Who? I can’t say for certain. But well-known names with a history in Maine politics have to be considered: John Baldacci, Mike Michaud, Chellie Pingree, Janet Mills (and, perhaps, Peter), Angus King, Steve Abbott, Kevin Raye, Bruce Poliquin, Les Otten, Peter Cianchette, Rick Bennett, Charlie Summers, Eliot Cutler. And there are plenty more. The speculation is rampant.
And it’s a sprint. There’s only 15 days to qualify for the primary ballot.
And it’s really less time than that because the signatures have to be checked by local registrars before the March 15 deadline to turn them into the Secretary of State. That’s how long candidates for the U.S. Senate — and possibly the U.S. House of Representatives if Rep. Mike Michaud or Rep. Chellie Pingree get into the Senate race — have to collect signatures to make it on the June primary.
Independents, and you can bet that there are several who have awakened from their political slumber, have longer. They have until June 1 to qualify for the ballot.
Frankly, the word free-for-all doesn’t do justice to the chaos in Maine politics today. Would-be candidates have almost no time to consider their decisions. It’s go or don’t go. Now.
While the eventual outcome of the primary and general election will rely on many factors, including fundraising, the next two weeks will be an amazing test of old-fashioned political organization.
Last summer, politicians of all stripes took a hard look at the landscape and the biggest names decided that the prospects of beating Sen. Snowe either in a primary or a general election were close to zero.
Sen. Snowe was entering the election season with a few dents in the armor — former Gov. McKernan’s problems with for-profit colleges and the increasingly rightward tilt of her own party. But nothing that suggested that her near-70-percent approval rating was in jeopardy.
Even this far into the season, there was no sign that any of her challengers were gaining strength. If anything, Snowe seemed more unbeatable than ever, even garnering support from OneMaine, an Eliot Cutler-backed political organization.
And then, boom. None of that matters.
Candidates are already on the ground, even if they haven’t formally announced that they are running, trying to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot. Just in case they decide to run.
As someone who has advised a number of political candidates over the years, you try to look ahead and prepare. You try to anticipate what might happen and have the structure in place to take advantage of an opening.
In Maine, there are limited opportunities in politics. Term limits and a part-time Legislature mean that there are always people looking to move up, while the jobs at the top are scarce and not prone to turn over.
But even with all the planning and what-ifs, Snowe’s late departure caught everyone off guard. And it has unleashed a torrent of political activity.
For the next two weeks, all political eyes are going to be on Maine to see how this race shakes out.
And now a word about Sen. Snowe. I don’t know how much she will appreciate praise from a Democrat such as me and I’m sure it’ll only add scorn from some of her critics, but I want to offer some. When Sen. Snowe — along with Sen. Susan Collins, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — joined Democrats and supported the Recovery Act, they helped to save the Maine and the national economy.
It’s not hyperbole. Thousands of jobs were spared and thousands more were created in Maine alone.
The votes by the two Maine Republicans, and Sen. Specter, were courageous. It took real guts to cross party lines and take that stand.
Lost in a campaign season in which Republicans who hope to become president are attacking government, the Recovery Act kept teachers and firefighters on the job, helped to build roads and rail and encouraged the development of new high-tech industries.
While there have been times before and since when I have disagreed with Sen. Snowe, I will always remember that one vote and the positive impact it had on every community in Maine.
David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.