Sixth in a series profiling the candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Maine Republican Olympia Snowe.
Charlie Summers looks the part.
Congressional demeanor. Congressional appearance.
And, by virtue of his political experience and past employment by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, congressional connections.
Yet to this point Summers has no congressional experience. He has made three bids for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st Congressional District.
The first run, in 1994, ended early after Summers finished second in the GOP primary. He was clobbered by former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen in the 2004 general election, losing by 24 percentage points.
Summers tried again in 2008. The result was a 10-point loss. However, the Scarborough resident faced an opponent, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who spent nearly all of her $2.2 million war chest defeating him and her Democratic rivals during a six-way primary. Summers spent a little less than $645,000.
The day after the 2008 election, Summers gathered reporters at his Portland campaign headquarters. He was asked if he’d try again. Summers was noncommittal, but doubtful.
Nearly four years later, Summers is back on the campaign trail, this time to replace Snowe, his former boss whom he once credited with showing him the political ropes.
“I’m a much better candidate than I was four years ago,” he said. “I feel like I’m a more rounded candidate.”
Recent polling shows that Summers is among the best-known candidates in a Republican field of six, thanks in part to his previous campaigns and his current post as the Maine secretary of state.
He has embraced the nomenclature of GOP politics that helped sweep Republicans into power in Augusta less than two years ago.
President Obama’s federal health care law must be repealed: “I don’t think Americans want their health care provided by the same people who gave you the IRS,” he said. Congress must address the country’s “crushing national debt.” America, he said recently, is spending its “way into oblivion.”
During a recent forum in Aroostook County, Summers said the U.S. Constitution was a “divinely inspired document,” a blueprint for American prosperity that shouldn’t be twisted by contemporary interpretation.
He says government needs to get out of the way of business development; less regulation, not more.
“Is America ready to lean forward and lead again or are we going to face a future of constrained horizons?” he asked.
Summers’ public profile would seem to make him a GOP frontrunner. However, most recent campaign finance disclosures show that his campaign was slow to get up and running.
His $21,280 put him second to last of the five GOP candidates that filed disclosures. The three Democrats in the race have raised more over the same period.
Summers is quick to point out that Snowe’s sudden withdrawal from the race put Republicans at a disadvantage.
“Normally it takes two years to gear up for a campaign for the U.S. Senate,” he said. “We had to do it in two weeks.”
Despite serving as Snowe’s state staff director from 1991 to 1994, Summers didn’t receive any advance notice of her Feb. 28 retirement. He found out when the country did.
“I was going to pick up my little boy at day care, which was about 4:45 p.m.,” he said. “All of a sudden my cellphone went (exploding sound). I sat there for about 30 minutes in the parking lot calling people, saying, ‘What, is this true?’ “
It’s also true that Summers wasn’t the first candidate to receive Snowe’s assistance, although Republican observers have questioned whether the moderate’s support is more harmful than helpful in a GOP primary that could be decided by more conservative voters.
Attorney General William Schneider won early access to Snowe’s supporter list to help gather petition signatures to get on the primary ballot. Snowe also has donated to Schneider through her campaign committee. She has yet to do the same for Summers.
Regardless, Summers enjoys broad support within the Maine Republican Party. His wife, Ruth Summers, may be just as popular. The current vice chairwoman of the Maine GOP, she campaigned for her husband while he was deployed in Iraq with the Navy Reserve in 2008.
“If I would have stayed in Iraq, I would have gotten elected,” he said. “We were doing great until I got back.”
Summer is only half-kidding. Ruth is regarded as a rising star in the party. This year she’ll attempt to win his old state Senate seat.
Summers held the seat from 1991 to 1994. He was the first Republican to win there. Summers served during the infamous shutdown of state government, an event that he says taught him how to deal with politically unpopular decisions.
That experience came into play last year, when Summers backed a bill that repealed Maine’s nearly 40-year-old Election Day voter registration law. A coalition of advocates quickly initiated a citizens initiative to overturn the repeal. They argued that Summers and the Legislature’s Republican majority were attempting to limit ballot access with manufactured concerns over voter fraud.
Later in the summer, GOP Chairman Charlie Webster produced a list of college students that he said may have committed fraud. Summers then scheduled a media event announcing that an investigation was forthcoming.
The coalition accused Summers of politicizing his office, a criticism that intensified after he sent a letter to more than 200 students at the University of Maine telling them to get a Maine driver’s license and register their vehicles in Maine or relinquish their right to vote.
Zachary Heiden, the legal director for The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, demanded that Summers apologize, saying that the secretary of state had “violated the federal Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.”
Summers at times appeared an unwilling participant in a battle that ended with voters overwhelmingly voting to overturn the repeal of Election Day registration. However, he said has no reservations about his part in the battle.
“I knew I was going to take some heat for it,” he said, adding that the debate helped raise awareness about the “integrity of Maine elections.”
The controversy appears to have done little to affect Summers’ standing in the Republican party. He remains an approachable public figure. He still carries the loss of his first wife, Debra, who was killed in a car accident in January 1997.
The couple met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and came to Maine in 1982. Debra was driving home from work one night when her vehicle slid on ice, hit a guardrail and flipped down a steep embankment before landing upside down in a brook. The wreckage was found the next day.
Summers became a single father to Tricia and Chas before he met Ruth while he was in the Navy Reserve. He and Ruth now have a 2-year old son, Thomas.
“When you lose somebody it refocuses you,” he said.
Summers said he’s now focused on the Senate race. He believes his military experience and his former post as regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration distinguish him from the Republican field.
“I don’t give up easily,” he said.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: [email protected]
This story has clarified to show that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree spent nearly $2.2 million during the Democratic primary and the general election.