WASHINGTON – Jason Levesque caught flak from fellow Republican conservatives last fall when he accepted U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe’s offer to campaign with him during his unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.
The famously moderate Snowe, it seems, didn’t pass muster with many Maine conservatives, particularly those who consider themselves part of the tea party political uprising.
But Levesque, who acknowledges he doesn’t agree with Snowe on every issue, said he didn’t hesitate to ally himself with her during his campaign for Maine’s 2nd District.
And he believes Snowe’s standing among Maine’s conservatives is improving as she gears up to run for a fourth Senate term in 2012.
“Everyone was saying (Snowe) was not conservative enough, a RINO (Republican in name only),” Levesque said. “But since November there has been a shift, almost like an awakening. Sen. Snowe has been very active post-election about reaching out and stating her case.
“The chatter is really diminishing against Sen. Snowe,” said Levesque, of Auburn. “There is not this, ‘We’re up in arms, we’ve got to get rid of her’ dynamic.”
But some national pundits and media stories have thrown Snowe into the 2012 tea party conversation as an example of a veteran Republican who could fall victim to a conservative primary challenge — or at least be so rocked that she might become general election prey for Democrats.
Some conservative Republicans weren’t happy with Snowe’s decision to help vote President Obama’s health care bill out of the Senate Finance Committee — even though Snowe voted against the final legislation and now advocates the law’s repeal. They viewed Snowe’s votes for the stimulus package and so-called bank bailout as two more strikes against her.
So far, two Maine conservatives, both claiming the tea party mantle, have declared they will challenge Snowe in next year’s GOP primary.
Snowe won her last race in 2006 with 74 percent of the vote. She’s never had a GOP primary challenger during her three U.S. Senate races or any of her U.S. House races.
One of her declared primary challengers this year is Scott D’Amboise, 47, of Lisbon Falls. D’Amboise, who ran against Michaud in 2006 and is a health care technician and owner of a commercial cleaning business, said he will campaign on a platform of values, morals and fiscal conservatism.
He said he can tap into the same conservative tea party movement that helped propel Gov. Paul LePage to victory.
“I hope people realize that it is time not to have career politicians, it is time to have people just like they are,” D’Amboise said. “I am a conservative constitutionalist, and (Snowe) should be worried.”
D’Amboise said he has met with many Maine tea party groups and backers and hopes to win the endorsement of the national Tea Party Express group, which this month announced it was including Snowe among the senators it hopes to defeat.
Snowe’s other announced tea party-aligned challenger is Andrew Ian Dodge of Harpswell, 43, a freelance writer and a former coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots in Maine. Dodge announced his candidacy in Washington at this month’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
He says he is a hard-line fiscal conservative, but not “scary right” on social issues. That combination can appeal to Republican primary and general election voters in Maine, Dodge said.
But LePage already has announced he is backing Snowe.
Independent political analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Washington-based Cook Political Report said Snowe could be vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right, but doubts her current challengers pose much of a threat.
“If she got a first-tier challenger in there, she would have a real problem,” said Duffy. “But the governor made that harder when he endorsed her. So I don’t know if she will get that challenge.”
Democrat Rosa Scarcelli of Portland, an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate last year, has been mentioned as a challenger to Snowe, particularly if Snowe moves to the right to counter a tea party challenge.
Scarcelli, 41, said she is immersed in running her affordable-housing company and hasn’t made a decision, but is flattered by the talk about her candidacy.
“I do believe Snowe would be a difficult challenge for anyone, and I am thinking about how she is voting and whether or not it reflects our values as a state,” Scarcelli said. “When the time is right, I will make a decision.”
Snowe said in an interview last week that she is proud of her record and considers herself a longtime and authentic fiscal conservative.
Snowe noted that she has fought against federal deficits and for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution for years and is pursuing an agenda that includes less government regulation of small businesses.
Her votes for the bank bailout and stimulus package were cast in the context of an economy on a precipice, she said. The stimulus package was mishandled by an Obama administration whose health care and government regulation agenda made businesses too nervous to re-launch their private-sector investments and hiring, Snowe said.
Snowe is talking to Mainers across the state about her record, answering questions and putting her three U.S. Senate terms, and eight U.S. House terms before that, into a context she says is often distorted by the “polarizing prism” of talk radio, cable TV and social media.
Snowe says she is “always worried about any election” and doesn’t “blame people for being angry and feeling disconnected from Washington.” But her goal is simply to “make sure people understand who I am. I have been there and I have been fighting” on behalf of Maine interests.
Snowe wields power on Capitol Hill, by virtue of her seniority, powerful committee posts and as a swing vote often sought by both parties.
Mainers — including many conservatives — are pragmatic — they recognize no one agrees 100 percent with any politician and that it would be a bad idea to lose a senator with as much seniority and power as Snowe, say Maine GOP officials interviewed last week.
“Olympia enjoys rather broad support in this community and in the state,” said Tom Shields, chairman of the Androscoggin County GOP. “I think she will prevail in the primary.”
Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: