September 17, 2012

Gaffe thrusts Maine into power struggle to control U.S. Senate

The outcome here takes on new importance after a Missouri candidate’s remarks prompt Republicans to throw up their hands there.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Can a political gaffe in America’s heartland change the dynamics of a Senate race roughly 1,500 miles away in Maine?

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The U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The Associated Press

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U.S. Senate cadidates, from left, independent Angus King, Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill participate in a debate at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Sept. 13.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Could be.

The now infamous comment by U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., about “legitimate rape” dealt a serious blow to his campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill. As a result, the outcome in Maine is even more critical to the Republican Party’s effort to win control of the Senate.

Charlie Summers, the Republican candidate in the Maine race, denounced Akin’s comments, yet he may benefit indirectly from the political chain reaction that has increased the attention on Maine.

All politics may be local, as the late House speaker and Massachusetts Democrat Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill famously quipped. But in today’s elections, political money is increasingly national and flows into campaigns by either trickle or torrent depending on how important the races are to the national parties’ agendas.

And by that standard, Summers’ U.S. Senate bid against independent Angus King and Democrat Cynthia Dill appears to have grown in stature ever since Akin’s remarks cost him the support of Republican leaders and, therefore, major donor groups.

In the three weeks since the firestorm began over Akin’s comments, out-of-state organizations with Republican ties have spent roughly $850,000 on television ads that would benefit Summers. Most notably, the National Republican Senatorial Committee bought $600,000 worth of ads and airtime in Maine targeting King and Dill last week.

“I think Maine’s importance, given the broader picture, has been elevated,” said Anthony Corrado, a Colby College professor of politics and scholar of campaign finance on the national stage. “They are not going to allocate money to places where they don’t see a tight race.”

To be fair, Maine’s Senate campaign is never mentioned among the handful of races around the country considered too close to call. So not surprisingly, King, Summers and Dill have attracted a fraction of the “outside money” that is flowing to candidates in tight races in such states as Virginia, Ohio and Nevada.

But ever since Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe abruptly announced her retirement last March, there has been no question that who wins Snowe’s seat could tip the balance of power in the Senate.

Conventional wisdom among many political observers has been that King – a former governor still popular with voters – is the odds-on favorite, with polls earlier this summer showing him far ahead of his two major-party contenders. But the Summers campaign has been increasingly insistent that King’s lead began shrinking ever since the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began airing ads attacking the former governor’s record.

And with McCaskill now in a stronger position to defend her seat against Akin in Missouri, GOP groups hoping to wrestle control of the Senate from the Democrats may be looking anew at other races where infusions of campaign cash could boost Republican contenders.

The Republican senatorial committee reportedly canceled plans to spend up to $5 million on the Akin-McCaskill race and is now moving that money elsewhere.

“We’re done,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC chairman, told Politico last week when asked whether the organization may still help Akin financially. As a result, Politico reported, NRSC “has shifted its focus to states like Maine.”

“As Republican chances of retaking the Senate have been squeezed around the country, Maine has become more important to the party,” said Amy Fried, a politics professor at the University of Maine. Fried predicted that groups will wait to gauge the return on their investment based on polling before deciding whether to stay engaged in the state.

“But Maine is an inexpensive media market,” Fried said. “So if a half-million dollars comes in, you can do a lot with that in Maine versus, say, in Ohio or Virginia or Massachusetts.”

(Continued on page 2)

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