AUGUSTA, Maine — A Tea Party tempest is losing steam in a state that prides itself on its independence and moderation.
With inspiration from tea partiers, Maine Republicans adopted a party platform last month that raised eyebrows nationally, with planks calling for the elimination of the Department of Education, a reference to global warming as a “myth” and a declaration that health care “is not a right. It is a service.”
But even Republican candidates for governor have backed away from the platform, which replaced a pro-forma document up for adoption at the state party convention.
That ambivalence creates a mixed bag for tea partiers, who advocate little government interference in citizens’ affairs — a concept attractive to many Democrats and Republicans alike but one that has been overshadowed by some of the movement’s louder voices.
Maine’s reputation for electing centrists, including independent former Gov. Angus King and current Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, means the adoption of the rigid platform may not translate into success when voters choose party nominees Tuesday.
At the convention, Democrats gasped and demanded that the Republican candidates repudiate it. None of the seven GOP hopefuls went for the bait, but most later expressed reservations, parsed their words or simply sidestepped inquiries.
“I support the spirit behind the new platform, though the letter of the document does leave room for improvement,” conservative candidate Bill Beardsley said.
The most moderate of the GOP candidates, Peter Mills, borrowed tea party rhetoric to defend his belief that health care is indeed a right, calling it “a part of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
“That platform is an expression of anger about government,” Mills said. “And what I’m seeing as I visit with people in their homes and in their kitchens is even moderate voters are fed up, they’re frustrated, they’re exasperated. And they don’t think that they’re getting value for their tax dollars.”
Outside Maine, the Tea Party movement has already had an impact on major political races in more conservative states, including Florida, Kentucky, Texas and Utah, while contributing to a heavy lineup of congressional challengers.
At the same time, tea partiers nationwide are debating whether to endorse candidates, a step the movement’s leaders discourage, said Andrew Ian Dodge, Maine coordinator for Tea Party Patriots.
How much influence they’ll have among registered Republicans and Democrats is unknown.
“I don’t think anybody can say with any degree of certainty how big the movement is and how united they are,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. What Brewer, Dodge and others are sure of, however, is that the tea partiers will be among those voting.
They are forcing Democrats as well as Republicans to re-examine their positions, said Eric Lusk, a Republican activist from Portland.
Democratic governor candidate Rosa Scarcelli believes the Tea Party movement is not just a Republican phenomenon, but also a reflection of frustration by Democrats who feel disenfranchised, said Dennis Bailey, a worker for her campaign.
Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who also has a centrist reputation, is completing his second four-year term and is constitutionally barred from seeking a consecutive third term.
Scarcelli, a businesswoman, has staked out the right and the outsider’s role in the four-way Democratic race. The other three are government insiders — Senate President Libby Mitchell, former Attorney General Steve Rowe and Pat McGowan, a former legislator who also served in Baldacci’s Cabinet.
The seven-way Republican primary bridges the political spectrum, from Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, who’s been wooing tea partiers, to moderate Mills, a state senator. The others include Beardsley, Steve Abbott, Matt Jacobson, Bruce Poliquin and Les Otten. Most stress themes of reducing state government and creating jobs — and avoid references to the party platform.
Poliquin said he agrees with some parts of the document but finds others “unnecessarily divisive.”
Abbott acknowledged his dislike for the more extreme planks, but added, “When you get past some of the rhetoric, what I do see is support for the Constitution (and) fiscal responsibility.”
Jacobson, asked whether he supports it, sidestepped the issue, as did Otten. LePage, who’s been wooing tea partiers, didn’t respond to a query.
Snowe and Collins are often swing votes in the Senate and occasionally stray from Republican Party lines — Snowe most famously during the congressional debate over health care. Neither is announcing a favorite in the GOP race, although Abbott was Collins’ chief of staff for the past 12 years.
Both senators play down the furor over the state GOP platform and say there’s seldom universal agreement over the planks.
But through a spokeswoman, Collins noted, “The tea party’s emphasis on fiscal responsibility is consistent with a core Republican principle.”