Several Ex-Snowe and McKernan Aides on Ballot
When it comes to pinpointing future Republican talent in the Pine Tree State, political scouts may not need to look much further than the office of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R).
While the figures aren’t exactly staggering, in a state with only two Congressional districts and a population of just less than 1.3 million, former or current Snowe aides have in recent years demonstrated a surprising proclivity to hit the hustings, though with varying degrees of success. [IMGCAP(1)]
“She has a good reputation for being a mentor and helping people along,” said Jim Tobin, Bush-Cheney ’04 regional New England chairman and a former staffer to then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine).
This cycle alone, Snowe’s former state director Charles Summers (R) is challenging Rep. Tom Allen (D) in the 1st district, while ex-Chief of Staff Kevin Raye, the 2002 2nd district GOP nominee, is running for the state Senate. And her former intern, Peter Fullerton, had thrown his hat into the ring for a seat in the state Legislature, but after recently securing a job with the Maine GOP he decided against it.
Broaden the field to include the political circle of Snowe’s husband, former Gov. John McKernan (R), and the percentages only increase.
Maine’s junior Senator, Susan Collins (R), was herself a former McKernan commissioner and aide to Cohen; the 2nd district’s current GOP contender, Brian Hamel, was recruited by McKernan to head the Loring Development Authority, the entity that has overseen the redevelopment of the former Air Force base in Aroostook County.
“It’s that one-two punch of having a governor and Senator,” said Maine GOP consultant Roy Lenardson. “Lots of people … got their start working on their campaigns.”
Still, despite the recent flurry of electoral activity surrounding Snowe’s former staffers, the two-term Senator shrugs off suggestions that she harbors a grand strategy of creating an extended political dynasty.
“No, I don’t think it’s any dynasty, it’s just that people have interest,” Snowe laughed. “It’s the political bug.”
Nevertheless, Snowe said her door is always open to those aides looking for some high-profile words of wisdom.
“They know I’m always available for advice or guidance,” she said.
Accordingly, the two GOP Congressional nominees this cycle sought Snowe’s counsel before announcing their bids (and both have already received $1,000 checks from her campaign account).
“She didn’t say, ‘Yeah, go out there and run’ — that’s not her style,” said Summers, who is launching a long-shot challenge in Allen’s Democratic-leaning district. “She’s more someone you can talk to about a situation, lay the issues out and talk about the pros and the cons.”
Although Snowe has a long history of electoral success — her career began in the Maine House of Representatives in 1973, and she has steadily worked her way up the political ladder — her political popularity is not necessarily transferrable to others.
While praising Snowe as “one of the most successful political figures ever in Maine,” Raye, who narrowly lost to now-Rep. Mike Michaud (D) last cycle, conceded that “no candidate is going to get elected on the strength of another person.”
“She did anything I ever asked of her when I was running for Congress,” said Raye, who first worked for Snowe as a teenager on her 1978 inaugural Congressional campaign.
Moreover, Snowe doesn’t have any illusions that a personal association with her was necessarily always a net positive for her former aides.
“That could work for some, it could work against them,” she said.
Indeed, none of the candidates to come out of her office has actually gotten elected to the House, and both of the state’s Congressional seats are held by Democrats.
But several Maine Republicans said that at least within GOP circles, Snowe’s appeal is far-reaching.
“She’s like a rock star,” said Lenardson, noting the degree to which her presence on the stump and in advertising was sought by Republican contenders. “Everyone knows her, everyone likes her.”
Snowe’s aides are also active at the local level. State director Gail Kelly is a city councillor in Brewer (and a former mayor of the town); Snowe regional representative Cheryl Leeman, who worked for McKernan’s re-election campaign as well as in his administration and later served as field director for Snowe’s inaugural Senate campaign, is a former two-time Portland mayor and current city councillor.
“She really is an advocate for public service, and that’s what we take from her,” said Kelly. “It’s kind of like being nurtured by your parents.”
Even when former staffers end up on the losing side of the equation, Snowe remains supportive.
“When you lose it’s very lonely,” said unsuccessful Pine Tree State Republican Congressional candidate Ted O’Meara, who worked for Snowe during her tenure in the House and later served in Cohen’s office. “The day after I lost the general election the only person of any political stature who called was Olympia.”
Though Snowe’s office has clearly produced a deeper pool of candidates, it’s only a matter of time before Collins, elected to the Senate in 1996, begins to see a similar trend in her office, said Sharon Miller, McKernan’s former chief of staff.
Maine has a strong tradition of ex-Congressional aides, such as former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D), going on to hold elective office, Miller noted. She pointed to Randy Bumps, a former state House Member and ex-Collins aide now serving as executive director of Bush-Cheney ’04 in Maine and to the Senator’s chief of staff, Steve Abbott, as potential future candidates for either the state Legislature or Congress.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised to see at least one former Snowe aide reprise his Congressional candidacy somewhere down the line.
“I certainly would never rule out running for Congress again,” said Raye. “You can’t help it if you work with her closely for a long period of time to be instilled with a sense of public service and wanting to do the kinds of things that she’s always done for Maine.”