Polls released Tuesday and Wednesday suggested Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe is losing support of conservatives but remains well-liked overall and is likely to win re-election in 2012 unless a more well-known challenger decides to run.
The polls, by the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, come more than a year before the Republican primaries in Maine. Snowe, who is in her third Senate term and has been in Congress since 1979, has two announced primary challengers and may see more now that the national Tea Party Express has targeted the moderate Republican for “Snowe Removal.”
One of the polls, which queried 1,247 Maine voters, puts Snowe’s approval rating at 60 percent overall, with 32 percent of respondents disapproving of her job performance and 9 percent not sure.
Snowe is more popular among respondents identifying themselves as “moderate” — with a 76 percent approval rating — and “somewhat liberal” — with a 73 percent approval rating — than with respondents identifying themselves as “somewhat conservative” and “very conserative,” with 57 percent and 24 percent approval ratings, respectively.
The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent.
In another poll, released Tuesday, which surveyed 434 usual Maine Republican primary voters, 58 percent of respondents said that Snowe is too liberal, and the same percentage responded that they would rather vote for a more conservative candidate in the primary than Snowe.
When asked if Snowe belonged in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party or is an independent, 37 percent in the poll of Republican voters responded that she belonged as an independent and 33 percent responded that she belonged as a Democrat, with only 27 percent responding that she belonged as a Republican. Six percent were not sure.
When matched up against challengers both in the primary and in the general election, Snowe fared well. Snowe pulled more than 60 percent in the second poll when matched up against potential Democratic challengers Emily Cain and Rosa Scarcelli, and more than 54 percent of respondents said they’d vote for Snowe if she were in a three-way race running as an independent. In the first poll, of usual Republican primary voters, 43 percent of respondents said they’d prefer Snowe over challengers Andrew Ian Dodge and Scott D’Amboise in the primary.
The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.7 percent.
Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College, agreed with the pollsters that Snowe will face little resistance in the general election, if she gets there.
“I think if she ran as an independent she’d win the general election in a lock,” Maisel said. “She’s a very popular and very effective senator.”
But primaries usually see a higher percentage of more ideological voters than the general election, Maisel said. He noted last year’s Senate race in Delaware, in which tea party-backed Christine O’Donnell beat the “very respectable, very electable” former governor in the primary.
O’Donnell went on to lose the general election to the Democratic nominee.
More opponents in the primary also could work to her favor, Maisel said, by dividing the anti-Snowe vote and allowing her to win a plurality.
John Richter, Snowe’s chief of staff, rejected any idea Snowe might leave the Republican Party, saying Snowe is “a lifelong Republican. She’s running as a Republican.”
Richter said Snowe is a strong and well-liked senator and reiterated earlier statements that she takes every race seriously.
“We’re gearing up,” Richter said. “And we’re gearing up at an earlier point than we ever have, because we understand that’s what we need to do.”
When asked about more challengers in the primary, Richter said, “Maine people don’t respond necessarily to outside groups,” referring to the California-based Tea Party Express.
Analysts have chronicled Snowe’s recent move the right, likely inspired by her tea party challengers.
Senate candidates ousted from their party’s ticket have found ways to win anyway in the past. In the 2010 midterm elections, incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska failed to win the Republican nomination but still retained her seat as a write-in candidate. In 2006, then-Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman did not receive renomination to the Senate and went on to be re-elected as an independent.
In Maine, Snowe would have to decide if she wanted to run as an independent before seeing the primary results — the filing deadline to run as an independent falls on June 1, just a few days before the Republican primary.
In a statement Tuesday, Richter accused PPP of trying to insert itself into Senate races “with the goal of Democrats picking up these targeted Senate seats, with the hope that weaker Republican candidates who cannot win a general election are the party’s nominees.”
Public Policy Polling was founded in 2001 by a Democratic pollster and is frequently referenced as left-leaning, but an analysis of pollsters after the 2010 election by a polling expert at The New York Times found PPP to be the fourth most accurate national polling firm in the election cycle, with a slight conservative bias in its results.