Brewing Up a Storm
The state most associated with GOP moderates has suddenly become a Tea Party hotspot.
- By: Colin Woodard
Weeks passed, spring turned to summer, but Maine’s political class was still in shock over the results of the Republican gubernatorial primary.
On June 8, Waterville mayor Paul LePage — the darling of many Tea Party supporters — vanquished six other candidates for the party’s nomination. What was astonishing wasn’t so much the fact of LePage’s victory, but the size of it. He didn’t just beat better known, more experienced, better funded rivals from the party’s centrist camp; he crushed them under an avalanche of new voters. LePage won fourteen of Maine’s sixteen counties and walked away with 37.4 percent of the vote, more than the second and third place finishers combined.
The primary suggested Maine’s famously moderate GOP might be undergoing a conservative realignment. Nearly twice as many voters had turned out than expected, many of them determined to deny the Blaine House to moderates. Former ski resort mogul Les Otten, veteran legislator Peter Mills and Sen. Susan Collins’ longtime chief of staff, Steve Abbott — slated to finish first, second, and third by the last pre-election poll — all took a drubbing. Together LePage and the Christian right’s standard-bearer, Bill Beardsley, had garnered nearly half the Republican electorate.
This came on the heels of May’s state party convention, where an overwhelming majority of delegates voted to toss out the proposed platform in favor of a document Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called a “manifesto of insanity.” The new platform demands the sealing of U.S. borders, the investigation and prosecution of “collusion between government and industry in the global warming myth,” the rejection of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Reserve, and prohibitions on future stimulus spending and “participation in efforts to create a one world government.”
The enthusiastic endorsement of this platform surprised even those who wrote it. “I had no inkling this would pass, and frankly we’d been told as much by people running the convention,” says co-author Steven Dyer, an evangelical youth pastor and vice chair of the Knox County Republican Committee, which sponsored the document. “We intended for it to be a document to hash out and negotiate back and forth, where we’d give in on some things. Instead it just went up for a vote and we got everything that we wanted.”
To top things off, insurgents have flooded several recent county meetings to overthrow the old guard. “The people who come from the traditional conservative Reagan wing of the Republican Party have lost control of it,” says Mills, who witnessed what he described as an extreme right wing takeover of the Somerset County organization at their June meeting. “We had most of the regular attendees” — businessmen from the larger towns — “but also a large number of evangelicals and Mormons and home schoolers from [rural] Palmyra, Canaan, and St. Albans. These people would not have nominated Ronald Reagan because he worked with George Mitchell to overhaul the tax code!”
One national polling outfit believes Senator Olympia Snowe will have a hard time winning a Republican primary next year. “If Snowe wants to be elected, she needs to run as an independent,” says Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, N.C., which in November found 59 percent of likely primary voters would prefer a more conservative candidate. “Maine Republicans are willing to support a Tea Party candidate.”
These developments — similar to recent Tea Party takeovers in Utah, Arizona, and other states — are all the more remarkable given the resiliency of the Maine party’s moderate wing. Its old-school New England Republican camp survived the Dixie takeover of the national party at the end of the 1960s, the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution in the 1990s, and the party’s sharp turn to the right under George W. Bush. As the national party swerved right, the Maine GOP fielded successful moderates for high office: Bill Cohen, Snowe, and Collins for U.S. Senate, John McKernan for governor.
“There were always conservative versus non-conservative views in the party, even going back to the early 1970s, but usually the non-conservatives dominated the party and its leadership positions,” recalls former party chairman Robert A.G. Monks, who was instrumental in Cohen’s successful 1972 congressional bid, in which he unseated a popular Democrat. “Cohen was the Messiah, the guy who created an atmosphere where it was okay to be a Republican again. But even he was tremendously concerned that a conservative group might come in and challenge.”
“The party has always been more conservative than those who have been elected,” says Cohen, whose staffers included Snowe, Collins, and McKernan. “We had our successes in years past by having the support of a moderate element in the Republican Party and a good proportion of independents who sustained us over the years.”
The party’s internal fissure started as a class divide, Monks says, but morphed into a conflict on social issues, with the conservatives motivated by opposition to abortion and gun control by the early 1980s. Moderate Republicans had much more in common with centrist Democrats like former Senator Edmund Muskie, he notes, than they did with the other wings of their own party. “People like myself and Cohen and Muskie always felt an optimal solution was a balance of government and private energy, and the question was how to apply government best to make this work,” he notes, an increasingly isolated position nationally after Reagan became president. “Reagan supplied a new definition for government’s role: none at all!”
Thirty years later, many are wondering if the GOP centrists may finally be losing their grip in Maine, and what sort of people might be replacing them.
On the campaign trail, Mills became concerned about the more aggressive elements of the Tea Party, the sort who pack firearms at rallies, dress up as Minutemen, or push candidates to sign pledges to disobey laws and regulations that “the People” (rather than the Supreme Court) deem unconstitutional. “Somehow Obama has morphed into George III, the Congress is the British Parliament, and the Tea Party is the Minutemen with their long rifles,” he notes. “I don’t think people have thought through where that all leads. Are we going to start shooting ‘redcoats’ if we don’t like what the Supreme Court says?”
Nobody really speaks for the Tea Party movement, which is, by nature, institutionally amorphous and ideologically ambiguous, but one of its highest profile Maine activists says there’s no need to worry. “Anybody calling for an insurrection, they’re not welcome,” says Andrew Ian Dodge, a science fiction writer, H.P Lovecraft expert, and self-described libertarian who serves as the statewide coordinator for Tea Party groups. “Everything is by peaceable means and the rule of law.”
The Tea Party groups, Dodge adds, are eclectic, with a wide spectrum of goals and members, and coordinating them is “like herding cats.” He says he hopes they will evolve into a fiscal issues pressure group, and that he hopes to keep social issues or party affiliations from driving away independents. “There are a lot of people throwing a great deal of emotion and effort behind LePage,” he says. “Now they’re not really Tea Party people; they’re LePage partisans, and there is a difference.”
Monks has an alternate theory: A historic realignment is taking place, but it’s being driven not by Tea Party supporters, but by Franco-Americans, who comprise a fifth of the state’s population.
Like other Catholic immigrant groups, Maine’s Franco-Americans generally supported Democrats in the mid-twentieth century, after being denounced as “Papists” and worse by northeastern Protestant establishment leaders who then ran the GOP. They generally continued voting Democrat even after co-religionists elsewhere rallied to Reagan, and now represent one of Maine Democrats’ most important constituencies.
But Monks suspects the Reagan Revolution may have finally arrived, thirty years late, with LePage standing in for Reagan to lead his fellow Franco-Americans into the GOP fold. “In the post-Cohen world, the existing Republican Party is far more comfortable to the family-church Franco culture,” he argues. “It would be a realignment along ethnic, social, and political principle lines, resulting in a very different, but very alive and coherent party. People like myself would probably not be comfortable in that party, but I’m not leaving.”
LePage chuckles on hearing this theory. “I’d love to think that, but I don’t think that’s what’s happened,” he says. “There are some Franco-Americans that crossed over in that election, but that’s far less than the number of independents that crossed over. It’s all about economics,” he adds. “I don’t believe there’s been as big a shift as some think there is.”
Indeed, perhaps nothing has changed. Cohen predicts we’re just glimpsing part of the tidal ebb and flow of national politics, a conservative flood that will soon be drawn back to the center where most of the electorate resides. Retired longtime Bangor Daily News political columnist John Day sees the election being driven by fiscal, rather than social, concerns and sees little difference between LePage, Snowe, and Collins on that front.
“Nothing in my judgment has truly changed, although on the surface it may look like it has,” says Bowdoin College government professor Christian Potholm. “In Maine politics, the center holds.”
- By: Colin Woodard