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The conservative push to oust moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe may be over before it ever really began.
Developments in recent weeks have exposed a fractured and disappointed tea party movement, even as one of Maine’s loudest tea party voices has emerged as a likely Snowe challenger. The fissure became more pronounced after Gov.-elect Paul LePage (R) declared he would back Snowe regardless of whether a more conservative candidate surfaces.
The announcement knocked the wind out of local tea party groups that had helped propel LePage to victory less than six weeks ago.
“I was kind of surprised — quite a bit, actually,” said Pete “the Carpenter” Harring, leader of the state’s largest tea party group, the Maine Refounders, and a member of LePage’s transition team. “I think it will make it a little more difficult [to defeat Snowe]. You’re going to have devoted Republicans that go by what the governor says. ... But it’s still my top priority. As far as I’m concerned, lifetime politicians need to go, period.”
Political observers don’t expect LePage’s decision — prompted by a personal connection to Snowe’s late husband — to persuade conservatives to abandon their quest to knock off Snowe. But some suggest that a passionate tea party push without LePage’s backing would ultimately have little effect.
“The only real, viable political activism in the state tied to the tea party was LePage’s machine. The Tea Party Patriots and all the other groups you would normally look to for activity and organization and volunteers and all that — they are all incredibly small and weak,” said a Maine Republican operative with significant ties to establishment and tea party groups. “His support for Snowe should deflate a lot of that grass-roots fire, activism — a lot of it.”
The infighting may be problematic as well.
Local conservatives have thus far rejected an opportunity to rally around the budding candidacy of one of their own.
Maine’s Tea Party Patriots state coordinator, Andrew Ian Dodge, hinted for weeks that he had intimate knowledge of a viable Snowe challenger, but he refused to name the person. It became clear in recent days that the mystery candidate is none other than Dodge himself.
Dodge would not confirm his candidacy outright, but he did not refute a report in a local blog suggesting that he planned to run.
“They said I had an awful start to the campaign,” Dodge said of the blog story. “How can that be, considering I don’t have a campaign yet?”
Any formal announcement would come in the new year, he said. And that’s too soon for Harring.
“Personally, I don’t believe that the tea party movement as a whole would support Andrew Ian Dodge at all. He has not been a major player in Maine,” Harring told Roll Call on Monday, adding that Dodge would likely face problems in a general election, even should he survive a GOP primary against Snowe. “I think that the press would have a field day with him, just because of his connections over in England — there’s questions about whether he’s a citizen or not.”
The Republican strategist said that even if Dodge were well-funded, most Maine voters would struggle to connect to him. The strategist mocked Dodge’s ponytail and called him “grungy” and “weirdly ideological.”
But Dodge, who says he is a citizen (born in New York), acknowledges that he does not fit the profile of a typical Senate candidate. He said he found it “predictable” that critics would attempt to tarnish his reputation.
A 42-year-old freelance writer, Dodge lives with his ailing mother in Harpswell, but he has spent significant time in England off and on since childhood. He writes for various publications, including the Washington Examiner and music review websites.
Dodge, a graduate of Colby College and England’s Hull University, once considered running for local selectman, but he has never actually run for elected office. He volunteered for a number of campaigns more than a decade ago, including two in England.
“I’m basically a hired gun,” he said. “But I only work for people I believe in.”
Public polling continues to suggest Snowe is vulnerable to a challenge from the right.
Sixty-three percent of Republicans polled in September would have chosen a more conservative alternative to Snowe if given the opportunity, according to a poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. And while she is popular among independents and even some Democrats, just 39 percent of likely Republican primary voters approved of the three-term Senator’s job performance.
But Maine conservatives have yet to find the right candidate, Harring said.
“If we’re going to go up against Olympia Snowe, we need to find a candidate that’s not only able to take her out in the primaries but also win in the general election. That’s the key,” he said. “At the moment, that’s pretty much the problem we have — locating somebody who has big enough name recognition and money. She’s got tons of it. At the moment, there isn’t anybody that really stands out.”