March 16, 2012

And then there were 10 in Senate primaries

But no party members who filed signatures to run for Olympia Snowe's seat are big-name candidates

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - Six Republicans and four Democrats are now in the running to replace Olympia Snowe in the U.S. Senate.

The candidates qualified for their parties' primaries by handing in nominating papers with at least 2,000 voter signatures before 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the Secretary of State's Office. Most are party leaders at the state level, but will have to work fast to introduce themselves to voters statewide.

Snowe's decision to pass up likely re-election led some of the biggest names in Maine politics to consider running, but none of the 10 candidates who ultimately filed has held a national office or won a statewide election.

The party nominees can expect to face an opponent who has.

Former Gov. Angus King Jr. announced March 5 that he will run for the Senate, but as an independent he does not have to file nomination papers for the general election until June 1.

The six-way Republican primary features several leaders in state government, including all three of Maine's constitutional officers: state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, Attorney General William Schneider and Secretary of State Charles Summers. The other candidates are former Maine Senate President Rick Bennett, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman, and Scott D'Amboise, a conservative with tea party support and the only one who entered the race before Snowe's announcement Feb. 28.

The Democratic primary also features candidates with experience at the State House, including former legislator and Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, state Sen. Cynthia Dill and state Rep. Jon Hinck. Businessman Benjamin Pollard also qualified for the June 12 ballot.

Three big-name Democrats decided against running: former Gov. John Baldacci and U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree.

Pingree and Michaud decided to stick to their original plans and run for re-election, rather than seek Snowe's seat.

Republican and Democratic officials said Thursday that the strength of their primary candidates gives them a real chance to win the open seat, which could help determine the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

Political scientists said the question is whether either party's nominee can overcome King's name recognition and favorable public image.

"The voters only are vaguely aware of (the Republican) candidates," said Douglas Hodgkin, a retired Bates College professor who is active in the Republican Party.

"You have basically second-tier candidates in both the Democratic and Republican primaries," said L. Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College who was active in the Democratic Party. "Maybe, in the course of the campaign, one of the candidates" will emerge as a challenger to King, Maisel said.

The Republican primary looks somewhat like the party's gubernatorial primary in 2010.

In that race, seven candidates split the votes in unpredictable ways. Paul LePage, considered the most conservative candidate, surprised observers by winning decisively with 37 percent of the vote.

The three constitutional officers -- Schneider, Summers and Poliquin -- have the advantage of some name recognition outside the State House, Hodgkin said.

Poliquin, who is believed to have the most personal money to finance a primary campaign, has earned respect among Republicans for his criticism of spending by the Maine State Housing Authority, he said.

But questions about conflicts of interest with Poliquin's private businesses and his use of a tree-growth tax abatement will not help, Hodgkin said. Poliquin got only 4.9 percent of the vote in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.

Two of the Republicans -- Summers and Bennett -- have the advantage of having run for Congress in the past. "That may have some bearing on people's recognition factor," Hodgkin said.

Plowman has the advantage of being the only Republican woman in the race to replace Snowe, a Republican.

D'Amboise also can't be discounted, said Hodgkin. A candidate could win with less than 30 percent of the vote, and D'Amboise -- like LePage in 2010 -- has support among tea party conservatives.

"He has strong commitment from activists on the ground," Hodgkin said.

The Democratic race also is hard to predict, the political scientists said. What's most striking about the primary, they said, is that the dust has settled and the four candidates are the same ones who were running before Snowe got out of the race.

King's entrance discouraged better-known candidates from jumping in, Maisel said.

"Gov. King, in many ways, pre-empted the field," he said. "It's very difficult for a Democratic candidate to run against him with any kind of negative campaign."

Snowe's announcement that she would retire because of partisanship and dysfunction in Congress is an ideal setup for an anti-party candidate like King. In fact, Maisel now says the Senate race that some have predicted will be an expensive, high-stakes contest will in fact be "a yawner" in the fall.

"I can't see either national party is going to invest heavily in this race," Maisel said.

Hodgkin disagreed, at least regarding the Republicans. The GOP sees King as leaning toward voting with Democrats, he said.

"The Republicans will not want to give up this seat," Hodgkin said. "It will be a good race, unless both parties quite frankly take a dive and nominate someone who represents an extreme."

Many of the candidates issued statements this week saying they are in it to win and looking forward to November's election.

Hinck, one of the Democrats, said one thing hasn't changed since Snowe got out of the race and King got in: "We're still running against somebody who's already been declared the winner."

MaineToday Media State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

jrichardson@mainetoday.com

 

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