Is Maine’s reputation for being a hotbed of militant moderation a myth? Former Republican congressional candidate John Frary said so in his Press Herald column Tuesday.

A year ago I would have scoffed at the idea, but now I’m not so sure. Maine voters have been sending messages that they are more sharply divided and partisan than many of us had believed. How they express that in the upcoming gubernatorial election could lead to a big change in how we see ourselves and the role we play in national politics.

Last summer, the Obama administration was in its first blush, and while most Republicans were in firm opposition, the two senators from Maine still appeared to be on board.

When Obama’s stimulus program went through the Senate, it received three Republican votes – two from Maine senators and one from Arlen Specter, who was just about to switch parties and become a Democrat.

Snowe and Collins were widely reported to be potential swing voters on health care reform, and Obama was said to have both of their numbers on speed-dial. They were also being wooed for their votes on climate change, immigration and financial reform.

They still might be, but their votes are certainly not in Obama’s pocket. They both voted against health care reform and are opposed to the Democrats preferred cap-and-trade climate change bill.

And they have recently stuck with their party leadership on tough procedural votes, blocking an extension of unemployment benefits and aid to states – provisions that they both have supported in the past.

Their stated reason for breaking with Obama is the heavy-handed one-party rule in the Senate that leaves little room for debate and compromise. But you have to wonder if what’s going on in Maine doesn’t also play a role.

Over the last year we have seen two elections that rock Maine’s reputation as a place where moderates rule.

In November, same-sex marriage took a thumping at the polls, except in isolated places like Portland, where it received overwhelming support. Before the election, backers of same-sex-marriage (like me) said that Maine was different from other states where the issue had been on a ballot, and Maine voters would not stand in the way of their neighbors’ civil rights. We were wrong.

The idea of Maine as a place with a live-and-let-live bipartisan consensus on social issues also took a beating.

In June, we had another surprise at the polls, with Paul LePage’s victory in the Republican primary.

The shock was not that LePage won: He ran a strong grass-roots campaign and spoke directly to the kind of voters – those loosely connected with the ideals of the tea party movement – that you would expect to be most excited during this election cycle. In a seven-way race, any candidate could catch fire and end up on top.

The surprise was the size of his victory, getting more than twice as many votes as the first runner-up, Les Otten. Steve Abbott, the clear choice of the moderate Republican establishment – the kind of people who help Snowe and Collins get elected – finished fourth.

I don’t know what Snowe and Collins made of that result, but even though neither of them is up for re-election this year, I can’t imagine that it made them feel very comfortable.

With veteran senators losing primaries in Utah and Pennsylvania, Snowe and Collins must be paying attention to what the voters are saying back home.

Last year I laughed at a national poll that said Snowe would be vulnerable to a more conservative opponent in a primary. Today, I’m not so sure.

Would the independents and Democrats, who always supported her in November, change their registration and vote for her in June?

This gives this year’s Maine gubernatorial election national implications. There’s a Democrat and three independents running against LePage, all claiming to differing degrees of believability that they represent the moderate Maine electorate. But this election is shaping up as a referendum on Paul LePage and a defining moment for Maine.

A win for LePage, combined with his destruction of the moderate Republican establishment in the primary and the defeat of same-sex marriage last year, paints a picture of Maine that is different from the socially moderate, fiscally conservative, bipartisan state that we have grown to believe in. Even if the Democrats hold onto control of one or both houses of Congress, what kind of message would a LePage win send to Maine’s Republican senators?

Snowe and Collins probably wouldn’t see it as an invitation to look for common ground with the Obama administration, at least not without facing the threat of a primary opponent in 2012 (for Snowe) and 2014 (for Collins).

Two years is a long time in politics, and it would be crazy to try to guess what the political landscape would look like so far in advance, but members of Congress can’t just get in touch with their constituents at election time.

This November’s race will say a lot about what kind of state Maine really is politically, and how that plays out with our senators will be a developing national story for years to come.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: [email protected]