In Maine, Lessons From Rhode Island

Posted July 25, 2007 at 6:09pm

If Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) really wants to raise Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-Maine) hackles, he should compare her to former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

Collins’ campaign team reflexively bristles at the suggestion that her re-election race will go anything like Chafee’s did last year, but there are undeniable parallels.

Both are moderate Republicans in liberal New England. Chafee was forced to run as much against President Bush as the man who defeated him, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D). Allen already is working overtime to link Collins to Bush.

And voters generally like both Chafee and Collins.

Chafee’s approval rating was more than 60 percent on Election Day. Collins was at 73 percent in a survey in November.

“From Susan Collins’ perspective, I think there are a lot similarities,” said Ian Lang, who was Chafee’s campaign manager. “You have a moderate Republican, very popular in her state, well-liked and well-respected, facing a determined opposition candidate who is going to run an election not having anything to do with Susan Collins. It’s going to be about Bush and the Republicans.”

Collins’ camp is quick to point out that Rhode Island voters undeniably favor Democrats, whereas Maine is friendlier Republican turf.

That is true, but in both states the majority of voters affiliate with neither party when registering.

“People, sort of from a distance, compare Rhode Island and Maine, but the only thing we really have in common is both root for the Red Sox,” said Steve Abbott, Collins’ chief of staff.

“It’s a different year, if you’re looking at lessons learned from 2006 … people are always fighting the last war,” he added.

A huge departure point is that Chafee struggled through a brutal, expensive and divisive primary before facing Whitehouse.

That cost Chafee dearly and it’s a complication Collins will not face.

Allen spokeswoman Valerie Martin said that Collins’ stance on the war will cost her more than a bitter primary would.

“The most important issue facing Maine and America is Iraq, and for the past four and a half years she has been wrong and Tom Allen has been right,” Martin said. “That’s obviously the largest piece.”

Collins already has been the target of several ad campaigns paid for by independent groups that chastised her about the war.

Americans United for Change, a liberal group, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have both run television ads across the state.

Another group, VoteVets.org, aired radio spots.

Abbott said despite the historically early barrage, Collins’ standing with voters remains strong.

No recent polls have been taken, but Collins has enjoyed very favorable ratings her entire Senate career.

Christian Potholm, a political science professor at Bowdoin College and author of several books about Maine politics, said there is no analogy to be drawn from Chafee.

“I would see no parallels whatsoever,” he said. “It’s like comparing melons and kumquats.”

He conceded that her continued support for the war will cost her some votes, but he said it likely will not be a “make or break cost.”

Martin said the war is not Collins’ only problem.

“She’s so tied to Bush, we think voters are really going to have a problem with it,” Martin said. “She cast one of the deciding votes to confirm Sam Alito” to the Supreme Court.

Collins sided with Bush on his tax cuts and energy proposal, Martin said, while equally popular Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is moving away from the president — and Collins — over setting a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.

DSCC spokesman Matt Miller said those positions will cost her dearly.

“She is increasingly a Bush supporter in a state where’s he’s increasingly unpopular and she has a record with Bush that she’s not going to be able to run away from,” Miller said.

“Allen has rightly been pointing that out.”

Lang, who now is a political consultant with Lang Taylor in Rhode Island, had some advice for Collins: Do not let Allen make her answer for Bush.

“She needs to talk about her record, her achievements and focus on ‘who would you rather have in the Senate, Susan Collins or Tom Allen?’” he said.

“De-emphasize party label,” he said. “In the Senate with only 100 people, the integrity and the courage of the individual to do what they think is right is paramount.”

Martin said Allen and company will not allow Collins to distance herself from the president.

“I think she’s in a tougher spot than Lincoln Chafee,” Martin said. “She has been more loyal to the president than Lincoln Chafee ever was.”

Martin conceded that even though local newspapers hammered her for not supporting the Democratic troop redeployment proposal last week, voters still like her.

“I think we definitely have work to do in terms of educating voters on her record,” Martin said. “We believe the moderate image she portrays does not match her record.”

Lang warned that sometimes campaigns actually are not a popularity contest.

“Chafee’s approval rating on Election Day was over 60 percent,” he said. “How often, if ever, have you had someone with an approval rating over 60 and they lost?”