Sen. Olympia Snowe is bracing for the possibility of a brutal GOP primary in 2012 after watching as conservative activists turned on Republican moderates and longtime incumbents this year and targeted them for defeat ' sometimes successfully.
An interview with the Maine Republican on Tuesday revealed her focus on her re-election bid and her recognition that the tea party activism influencing several House and Senate primaries this year could last well beyond this election cycle.
'I've been a Republican for all of my political life, since I was registered to vote. I've always been part and parcel of the Republican Party,' Snowe said. 'It's where I grew up. It's where I grew in the Legislature in learning how to govern and how to legislate ' which is to build bridges. That's what Maine has been all about. That doesn't mean that you sacrifice your principles in order to accomplish that; to the contrary.'
'I've been at the forefront of a number of anti-spending initiatives [and] fiscal issues,' Snowe continued. 'I agree with tea party types when they say that the Republican Party lost its way. I agree. I was arguing that case for many years.'
Snowe could face several challenges in her quest for a fourth term.
Maine's primary elections are reserved for party members only, and they might seek retribution for her vote for President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill and her willingness to negotiate on health care reform. Snowe voted against the final health care bill, but she did support the version reported out of the Senate Finance Committee.
State GOP activists have exhibited a particularly conservative streak over the past two years. But key factors could tilt any primary challenge in Snowe's favor ' particularly her close relationship with Waterville Mayor Paul LePage (R), who is poised to be elected as Maine's next governor and is supported by conservative activists throughout the state. A LePage endorsement in a contested 2012 primary could help quell any dissatisfaction with Snowe in the Republican base.
Snowe has been campaigning and fundraising on LePage's behalf ' and according to a Republican operative based in Maine, the Senator for years has actively supported state party operations and downballot GOP candidates. And Snowe spends a considerable amount of time in Maine.
These elements would help her weather a stiff primary challenge, should one materialize.
'She's going to be fine but will have to pay more attention to her primary than in the past,' the Maine GOP operative said. 'If a serious candidate came in ' a well-known wealthy businessman, for example ' that could be a problem.'
The only Republican to announce against Snowe thus far is small-business man and 2006 House nominee Scott D'Amboise. In a nod to the tea party, D'Amboise's biography on his 2012 Senate campaign website closes with this line: D'Amboise 'understands the meaning of We The People and is dedicated toward returning our government to one that functions within its proper role.'
[IMGCAP(1)]Snowe is described as a tough campaigner, always prepared for the worst. Christian Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, said Snowe would 'cut the heart out' of any GOP primary challenger.
Sen. Susan Collins (R) said Snowe was prepared to fight, and she predicted her home-state colleague would win, although Collins conceded it is difficult to make predictions this far out.
'Olympia is very popular in Maine 'she has never lost an election and she has widespread support from Republicans, independents and even some Democrats,' said Collins, who won re-election in 2008, an otherwise bad year for Republicans who ran in Democratic-leaning states. 'I'm sure that neither of us ever takes an election for granted and that she will be well-organized, will do a great job of getting her message out and I am confident that she will win, whether there's a primary or not.'
However, the Republicans who lost this year were hearing similar predictions at the outset of the 2010 cycle, which was tougher than usual on Republican incumbents and those perceived as centrists. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) left the GOP in April 2009 after it became apparent he would lose to conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey in the Republican primary. Specter ultimately lost in the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak.
Sen. Bob Bennett, partly because of lingering anger over his 2008 vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, was ousted when Utah GOP nominating convention delegates declined to place him on their state's primary ballot.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost her bid for renomination in Alaska to attorney Joe Miller, who was making his maiden bid for statewide office. Less than one month before Murkowski's Aug. 24 primary, polls showed her way ahead.
Moderate Rep. Mike Castle, who had been in statewide elected office for more than two decades, lost the Delaware GOP Senate primary to tea party favorite Christine O'Donnell. O'Donnell surged in the final two weeks of the campaign, despite being outspent by Castle and enduring a barrage of negative press reports about her checkered past.
D'Amboise is not considered a top-tier candidate, but neither were O'Donnell or some other Republicans who won GOP nominations against more highly touted competition. Significant Republican gains in this year's midterm elections could alter the political climate in the 2012 cycle ' either for or against Snowe. But the Senator, girding for more of the same, expressed empathy for unhappy voters and said she shares their frustration.
'The fact is, people in Maine are deeply frustrated about the direction that the state has taken, specifically with respect to taxes and spending,' Snowe said. 'I think that that tenor has been building for that anti-tax, anti-spending climate that has resonated in this election.'