Maine is not a state that gets much attention. But, heading into 2008, it's set to become one of the most-watched places in the country as the incumbent Republican senator, Susan Collins, faces off against Democrat Rep. Tom Allen, and observers look northward to see whether New England is a total write-off for Republicans - or whether it just takes a certain breed of elephant to win there.
Once the home base of moderate Republicans, New England suffered a swathe of congressional, senatorial, and gubernatorial defeats last year. Out of five House seats held by Republicans heading into the 2006 elections, just one remains controlled by the GOP today - that of Connecticut Republican Chris Shays. Of two Republican senators up for re-election last year in New England, Senators Chafee of Rhode Island and Snowe of Maine, only Ms. Snowe survived. Republicans in New England did better with governorships in 2006 - but still, they lost in Massachusetts, which before 2006 had not elected a Democrat since Michael Dukakis back in 1987.
New England's switch from purple to blue is one of the major trends that Mr. Allen is counting on to pave his road to victory in 2008. After all, Maine may be one of the more Republican states in New England — with two Republican senators and a 41% Republican voting bloc in the state house — but it has been moving toward favoring Democrats by sizeable margins, at least where presidential elections are concerned. Maine went to Gore by 5 points in 2000 and to Kerry by 9 points in 2004.
The other trump card Mr. Allen hopes to play is that President Bush's approval rating is much lower in Maine than elsewhere. A poll released last month by Critical Insights showed that just 20% of Mainers have a favorable opinion of the president, which is 5 points lower than even in liberal Massachusetts.
That news is music to Mr. Allen's ears; but to capitalize on it, he'll have to tie Ms. Collins to Mr. Bush's sinking ship. That looks like a tough task — the same Critical Insights poll mentioned above showed that if the election had been held the day of the poll, 57% of those surveyed would have cast a vote for Ms. Collins, and just 30% would have supported Mr. Allen.
Moreover, when Survey USA measured Ms. Collins's job approval back in November of 2006, 73% of voters gave her a gold star — a percentage bested by just four senators nationwide. That's bad enough, but the real trouble for Mr. Allen is the underlying reason why voters in the Pine Tree state seem to like Ms. Collins so much.
Ms. Collins is perceived as an independent and truly moderate voice — but with a libertarian streak added to the mix, which plays well there.
Like Ms. Snowe, who won re-election in 2006 with a stunning 74% (the highest percentage of any incumbent re-elected last year, from either party), Ms. Collins voted to acquit President Clinton during impeachment proceedings in 1998, against the Federal Marriage Amendment, and against the partial-birth-abortion ban.
But unlike Ms. Snowe, Ms. Collins has made a point of putting her opposition to the troop surge in Iraq front and center — which should help to inoculate her against anti-war backlash. In addition, she has been supportive of free trade, and carries a more fiscally and economically conservative voting record. For 2006, she earned a 60% rating from fiscal conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, compared to Ms. Snowe's 50%.
Moreover, in a state that has traditionally favored moderates where statewide offices are concerned, Mr. Allen looks out-of-kilter with the dominant philosophy. He has a miserable record on fiscal issues, earning a measly 5% rating from Americans for Tax Reform for 2006, and the same rating for 2006 from the Club for Growth as did out-and-out liberals like Charlie Rangel and Dennis Kucinich. That is unlikely to sit well in a state that on the face of it appears to be quite worried about taxes and spending.
Furthermore, despite the fact that just 11.9% of workers in Maine have elected to join a union (less that the national average), big labor looks to be Mr. Allen's biggest base of support. Earlier this year, labor front group Americans United for Change ran an ad widely acknowledged for its misrepresentation of Ms. Collins's record in an early display of electoral aggression. The group remains on the attack against Ms. Collins because she does not support the unions' priority legislative item — the Employee Free Choice Act, which Mr. Allen co-sponsored.
All told, an odd scenario is shaping up where, in a region that is trending blue, Ms. Collins could be headed for a five-star celebration on election night— and Mainers may end up witnessing an embarrassing scene for Mr. Allen, who could end up as red-faced as a Maine lobster.