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Roll Call

Maine Mystery: Snowe Tea Party Rival?

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There is a budding mystery along the northern border, where a local tea party leader insists a credible challenger has emerged to attack Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe from the right.

Just don’t ask who it is.

The Maine state coordinator for the national Tea Party Patriots, Andrew Ian Dodge, tells Roll Call of “extensive” conversations with a candidate who promises to formally announce his Republican primary candidacy against Snowe in the first three months of 2011. And while he offered several hints, Dodge stopped short of naming the person who is supposed to knock off Maine’s most powerful politician in 2012.

“There is someone that’s going to come out. But he’s not going to be forced out by the press,” Dodge said. “Of course Snowe’s people want to know who it is, so they can take their machine and aim it at him and trash him. ... It’s a giant chess game.”

And while such ambiguous pronouncements two years before Election Day from a local activist might have produced chuckles in the past, the 2010 cycle proved that moderates such as Snowe are vulnerable to GOP primary challenges from little-known conservatives, even in less-than-conservative states. Just ask Delaware Rep. Mike Castle.

“Nobody’s going to get a pass,” Randy Lewis, a spokesman for the national Tea Party Patriots, said when asked Monday about Snowe in 2012. “Everybody on Capitol Hill right now is on a form of tea party probation.”

Dodge, a freelance writer, said the unnamed Maine Senate candidate, a man, has never run for elected office but enjoys strong name recognition. Further, the mystery man is from the southern part of the state (“Augusta south,” Dodge explained for those who understand Maine’s complicated geography) and has the financial resources to become an instant contender.

“Starting with nothing and building up against Snowe would be silly,” Dodge said. “It’s going to take a lot of money and lots of logistics to do it. It’s a bit like the English civil war, where you have a group of people trying to overthrow the king. It’s a bit like that in Maine. She runs the Republican Party. It’s going to be bloody and messy and not very polite.”

Snowe, a three-term Senator and the wife of a former governor, declined to be interviewed. Her office scoffed at Dodge’s claim as a rumor and refused to comment.

Could Dodge be the mystery contender? He is, after all, one of the most oft-quoted tea partyers in Maine. 

When asked, he wouldn’t rule it out, but such a move would be somewhat strange, especially given that Dodge said he had extensive conversations with the candidate, most recently before Thanksgiving.

His formal answer, however, left the door open just a crack: “I have never run for political office, and I have no immediate plans to do so.”

While there has been speculation that she might run as an Independent or even become a Democrat, Snowe has moved in recent months to strengthen her conservative credentials. She supported the stimulus package and was the only Republican to endorse a version of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, but she opposed the final bill and signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this month challenging a central provision of the new law.

“I’ve been at the forefront of a number of anti-spending initiatives [and] fiscal issues,” Snowe told Roll Call in late September. “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.”

But members of Maine’s fractured tea party movement say it’s too little, too late.

“Olympia is a little bit too far to the left for our liking. I often ask myself why she’s a Republican,” said Pete “The Carpenter” Harring, the leader of the Maine ReFounders, a tea party organization with no affiliation to Dodge’s group.

Harring said he isn’t aware of the candidate Dodge is touting but acknowledged that his group is “aggressively trying to locate someone” who will challenge Snowe from the right. Scott D’Amboise, a small-business owner and former town selectman, has already announced a bid, but tea party groups have been reluctant to back him. They criticize him as a former Congressional candidate simply trying to ride the tea party’s enthusiasm to victory.

Overall, Harring said, Maine’s conservative movement has never been more excited — it recently helped elect a tea-party-approved Republican governor and GOP majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature. As proof of the tea party’s newfound clout in the Pine Tree State, Harring is serving on Gov.-elect Paul LePage’s transition team, an appointment that Dodge criticized.

The little public polling on the 2012 race suggests that Snowe has cause for concern, even though she has overwhelmingly won her past re-election bids.

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.

Still, the state Republican establishment couldn’t be more supportive.

“We don’t get involved in primaries at the party level, but I can’t imagine anyone would seriously consider running against Olympia,” said state GOP Chairman Charlie Webster, blasting any suggestion that the Senator might leave the party. “She’d never change parties. She’s married to a former Republican governor. She’s been a lifelong Republican. There’s no way she’d switch parties. It’s not even logical.”

Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t exactly lining up to challenge Snowe.

Rep. Chellie Pingree’s office confirmed Monday that the Democrat “has no intention of running against Olympia.” And while Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rosa Scarcelli could be a contender, she has yet to come forward.

“No politician in the state has the [courage] to run against Snowe,” Dodge said, adding that the mystery candidate is “a true outsider.”

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