Maine Event Not Quite Yet

Posted April 16, 2008 at 6:08pm

Rep. Tom Allen is looking to catch the Democratic wave this cycle in Maine.

It’s a surf that seemingly missed the state in 2006, when Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) coasted to re-election over a minimal challenge from Democrats.

But while Allen is a much more formidable opponent than the Democrat who took on Snowe in 2006, he has trailed Republican Sen. Susan Collins in every publicly released poll on the race. And with seven months before the general election, it’s apparent that Allen will need a breakout moment to catch up to Collins.

Multiple polls released by both Democratic and Republican firms over the past six months have shown Collins leading Allen anywhere from 16 to 25 points. The most recent public poll, an automated one-day survey by GOP firm Rasmussen Reports from April 1, showed Collins leading Allen 54 percent to 38 percent. The poll of 500 likely voters had a margin of error of 4.5 points.

But Allen’s team dismissed the significance of the polls at this relatively early stage.

“The U.S. Senate is sitting with a lot of fine Members on both sides of the aisle who were double digits down” at this time last cycle, Allen spokeswoman Carol Andrews said.

Andrews suggested as an example Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who started out way behind in the polls but defeated incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) by a small margin in November 2006.

“We just have to make our case, and we’ll close that gap,” Andrews said. “Our money is competitive; we’ve got the right candidate, with the right issues and the right environment.”

Collins’ campaign manager, Steve Abbott, acknowledged that the gap in the polls would likely get smaller eventually.

“We know that this race at some point will become more competitive,” Abbott said. “But when you look at it right now, Senator Collins is in terrific shape. And if you look at the warning signs from 2006, none of them are in this race.“

Abbott said some of the conditions that existed in 2006 Senate races that Collins’ re-election battle has been compared to, like those in Missouri and Rhode Island, have not materialized.

“When you look at the races in 2006, when people ran into trouble, it was apparent at this point that something was going on,” Abbott said. “People didn’t realize the extent that it was going on, but it was reflected in the numbers that [it was] out there.”

Looking at other numbers, Allen has kept up the fundraising pace to challenge Collins. In the three-month period finishing March 31, Allen raised $701,000 and had $2.68 million in the bank, compared with Collins raising $963,000 and having $4.51 million in her campaign coffers.

Both Democrats and Republicans maintain that the race has barely started and that there’s still plenty of room to move, though Allen has been building his campaign infrastructure for about a year and now has 17 full-time staffers on board.

And Abbott, who served as Collins’ chief of staff until last week, came to the campaign earlier in the cycle than he did during her last re-election race in 2002, which he attributed in part to some personnel shifts.

But one thing that could shift the numbers in this race is funding from outside groups, many of which targeted the race early in 2007 as one to watch in 2008.

A spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Matthew Miller, said the committee has yet to buy advertisements or send staff to Maine and instead is focusing on helping Allen with fundraising and field operations.

“It’s still very early in this race and neither side has been on television at all,” Miller said. “Most people just aren’t paying attention to the campaign, if they know there’s one under way. This is a race when you have a good candidate, with a good message … it’s one that you will see close and become one of the hottest races in the country by November.”

Miller also called Allen “one of the best candidates in the country in 2008.”

MoveOn.org Executive Director Eli Pariser said the liberal group chose the race as one of its top targets early on in this cycle because of Collins’ position on the war in Iraq.

“We’ve raised some money from our members for Representative Allen,” he said. “Certainly, throughout the fight on the war, Senator Collins has been one of the top targets because she’s one of the key votes keeping us there.”

Pariser said his group raised about $365,000 for Allen in 2007 with online fundraising pushes.

“I think we’ve always thought this is a race that’s going to break late, and so I don’t think there’s any reason to believe he can’t win,” Pariser said.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee pointed out that money and advertising isn’t everything in Maine, which is a relatively inexpensive state in which to buy media spots. NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said there is a saturation point for television advertisement in the state, and a candidate can only spend so much to see poll numbers — and Election Day voters — move around.

“People have already made up their minds,” Fisher said. “People know [Collins], they like her and they’re not changing their minds.”