There was a time when the Maine Green Independent Party was a major force in this state.

Though they never managed to win a major elective office like governor or member of Congress, their candidates regularly had a significant impact on those races. Jonathan Carter, who later ran for governor twice and secured official party status for the Greens, may have significantly altered the political history of Maine – and the nation – by running for Congress in 1992. Although he came nowhere near winning, he did secure nearly 9 percent of the vote, which may have tilted the scale in favor of the Republican incumbent, Olympia Snowe, over repeat challenger Pat McGowan.

If McGowan had won, the 1994 open-seat Senate race when incumbent George Mitchell retired might have been much more competitive.

The Maine Greens have also had an outsized impact on the national Green Party movement in the United States – which should be no surprise, as they were the first state Green Party in the nation. Though Maine Greens have never fielded a presidential candidate, Pat LaMarche was the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2004, even if the ticket was outshone by Green-turned-independent Ralph Nader.

Unfortunately for the Greens, LaMarche’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign was the last time the party managed to get a candidate on the ballot for a major race. Since then, they’ve mostly made headlines as the largest opposition party in Portland, with a few state legislators here and there over the years.

Much of that early energy in the Maine Greens came from their willingness to use referendums to take on the state’s biggest industries. The state’s bottle law was first enacted as a citizen initiative, and we have Bigelow Mountain Preserve instead of a ski area thanks to a referendum. In other campaigns, environmental activists were less successful: They weren’t able to shut down Maine Yankee (at least, not directly); they could only delay the widening of the Maine Turnpike; and Carter’s efforts to enact a ban on clearcutting forests failed.

Regardless of whether they won or lost, they were able to get a whole host of proposals on the ballot that legislators in Augusta – from both parties – would have preferred to ignore completely. Most ballot measures haven’t been focused on environmental policy recently – instead, taxing and spending, civil rights and cultural issues have taken center stage.

The supporters of those referendums, though, owe much of their success to Maine Greens, who led the way in bringing issues to the ballot in earlier decades.

Another major environmental issue may be coming to the forefront of Maine politics soon, though: the battle over Central Maine Power’s proposed transmission corridor.

CMP’s project – which would involve construction of new transmission lines through Maine to help send hydroelectric power from Quebec to Massachusetts – is still in the planning stages, so don’t look for a vote on it this November. Nevertheless, it’s already become the focus of organized political campaigns from both sides – you’ve probably seen the signs popping up around the state.

It’s easy to imagine the issue appearing on the ballot at some point, however. No matter which way regulators end up deciding, opponents or proponents could decide to short-circuit that process by taking the issue directly to the people, as others have in the past. That explains why both sides are already spending money politicking, hoping to shape public opinion long before the proposal is up for a vote.

If it does end up in voters’ hands, there would be both peril and opportunity for Greens. In years past, fighting a major project from CMP might have seemed quixotic: The company not only wielded enormous influence in Augusta but also was popular with the public.

Lately, though, their star has begun to dim: Recent controversies, from storm response to billing errors, have hurt their image.

CMP has been emphasizing that the project will transport clean energy, so they may be trying to appeal to environmental activists.

Much of the opposition to the plan seems to be funded by power generators, but environmental advocacy groups and environmentally oriented companies – like, respectively, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Patagonia – have joined with them.

This issue doesn’t have a clear-cut delineation between environmental groups and corporate interests, so it may be more challenging for Maine Greens ideologically. Still, it does offer them a chance to lead on an issue that will probably be debated for years to come, so it will be interesting to see how they get involved.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel