Snowe Storm Implications: The Art Of The Possible

I’ve been on the phone for the last six hours.  My phone is dead, and so I write.

The news is still shocking, and that shock hasn’t worn off.  I’m not alone, though – I received a call this evening from a staffer who was in the room when Governor LePage learned of Snowe’s decision.  “Oh… shit” the governor said, flabbergasted, before shaking it off and returning to his work.  [pardon my French]

Dozens of people from both parties have been waiting to run for Olympia Snowe‘s seat for years, and operatives will be on the phone much later than I this evening, talking about who will be doing what in the next 48 hours.

And that’s the important part:  decisions are going to need to be made by everyone in the next couple of days at the latest.  Expect some decisions made by tomorrow.

Why?  The deadline to get on the primary ballot for Republican and Democratic candidates is March 15.  Any interested candidate will need to get 2,000 certified signatures by that date (which means well above 2,000 total if you figure in the names that will be thrown out), or they won’t be on the ballot.

The logistical requirements of actually meeting that hurdle are very high.  This is not something that can be done by a political novice in two weeks – indeed it is a difficult task for established figures.

In the 2010 gubernatorial contest, both Democrats and Republicans were having a difficult time getting enough signatures, and most campaigns only managed to finish collecting them a few days before they were due.  That was with a year (sometimes more) lead time.  People now have two weeks.

Unless something changes – I have heard mention that the Maine legislature has the capability to push that date back, but my sources say there have been no conversations about that yet – that means that the only people that can pull it off are folks with already established political machines, or people with the money to instantly purchase the manpower to get it done.

This has implications for more than just the Senate race.  If Chellie Pingree or Mike Michaud (or both) decide to run for the Senate seat, that means that potential candidates to replace them in the House of Representatives would have to meet that requirement as well.

All of this means decisions have to be made, and made fast.  This is especially true of Pingree and Michaud.

The picture of the three races impacted by Snowe’s decision to retire is beginning to take shape.  Yes, just a few hours after her announcement.

Contrary to some characterizations, this race does not turn from a guaranteed Republican hold to a guaranteed Democratic pickup.  The Republican bench is much stronger than it used to be, and all the major Democratic candidates have big flaws, so this race should start out as a pure toss-up in my book.

Independents

The first thing to consider here is the built in advantage for potential independent candidates.  They do not have primary campaigns to wage, and simply have to worry about getting on the general election ballot.  The filing deadline for independents and other parties is June 1st.

An interesting side note, the Americans Elect group has actually gained enough traction in Maine to be considered an officially recognized political party in the state.  It is possible that one of these candidates may run under that banner.

Eliot Cutler

Cutler is the 500 pound gorilla in the room.  Republicans, Democrats and others I have spoken with have come to the almost unifying consensus that if he jumps into the race, he is immediately the front runner.  While I think that may be a premature assessment to make, there is no doubt he would be a major force, and could be the early favorite.

Cutler has several built in advantages.  To start, as I just mentioned, he does not have to rush his push for ballot access.  He has until June 1st, and already has a political operation up and running.  He also has plenty of money available to him, and a positive political brand, having built up a lot of good will in his gubernatorial contest.

The question for Cutler is going to be what he wants to be – Governor, or a Senator.  If he is dead set for a re-match with Paul LePage in 2014, and wants to be Governor, he may very well take a pass on this race.  If, however, he wants to follow in the footsteps of his early political mentor, Ed Muskie, and attempt to insert himself into the pantheon of substantial U.S. Senators from Maine, he very well might take the plunge.

My gut?  He goes for it.  The arguments for him to do it sound more attractive to him than waiting another two years for a rematch against an incumbent governor.

Angus King

His name is come up, but nobody with any direct knowledge of what he wants to do has been doing the talking.  Those who mention him bring him up more in a “boy, he’d be crazy not to think about it” fashion – and with good reason.  King was Maine’s last popular governor, leaving office with an approval rating in the high 50s or low 60s.  He has credibility as an independent voice, and he has not shrunk from public view since leaving office.

He has no remaining political organization, but again, the lack of a truncated timetable to get on the ballot means that he would have some time to shave his beard, sell his RV, and rebuild one.

I think King takes a pass, but right now he has to at least be thinking about it.

The Democrats

Democrats have long understood that any serious rising stars in the party are wasted if they run against Snowe, which is why you consistently get candidates like Jean Hay-Bright running against her.  This year, the only people willing to stick their neck out to get steamrolled by her were Matt DunlapJon Hinck, and Cynthia Dill.  Not exactly the cream of the crop, by any means.  But with Snowe clearing a path and making the race winnable, the big players are in the game.

Chellie Pingree

The first name on everyone’s lips is Chellie Pingree.  She has long been known to aspire to the Senate, and now is probably the best chance she will ever have to capture this seat.  In addition, she has an unlimited pot of money to call upon, an established political organization, and the bright prospect of a favorable media environment on her side.

In short, she has to be the early frontrunner for the Democrats.  She just has to.  She has the progressive wing of the party – which has increasingly become the party - firmly locked up, has the resources, and has the biggest microphone.  Most importantly, she already has a campaign apparatus available to her.  House members have to run every two years, have to keep campaign staff, have to raise money, etc.  That means that if she says yes, she is one of the few candidates that can immediately get people pounding the pavement to get signatures, and do so effectively.

Pingree has not come out with a public statement as of yet expressing interest, saying only that she will evaluate her options in the coming days.  The Democratic activists I have talked to, however, are saying she is taking a hard look at it.  She has to know that this is the best opportunity she will ever have to be a United States Senator.  Bet on her running.

Mike Michaud

Unlike Pingree, Michaud has publicly said that he is interested, and that he is “seriously considering” a potential Senate bid.

Michaud is the other heavy hitter who could hit the ground running tomorrow.  Like Pingree, he already has a political organization, staff, and money, and could likely organize the needed signatures to get on the ballot.

But as he considers his run, he has to consider the political calculus, and whether or not he should do it.  He is a much better general election candidate than Pingree, but a much weaker primary candidate in the Democratic Party.

His more conservative reputation and rhetoric does not sit well with southern Maine and coastal Democrats, which is a major concern as the Democratic Party in Maine continues to turn more cosmopolitan and progressive, and less blue collar and moderate.

Still, he would be a major force in the primary, would likely dominate his home district, and if he were to win the primary, would be in a strong position heading into the general election.  That may be enough to entice him into the race.

John Baldacci

Thought you had heard the last of former governor John Baldacci?  Think again.  All night, his name kept coming up.  He is apparently making no secret about his interest in the seat, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the fact that he always seemed a better fit (and more comfortable) in Congress than he did as Maine’s Chief Executive.

For any who doubt, Baldacci’s brother Joe pronounced proudly this evening that he believed John was going to make a comeback.  Quote Joe, “I think it will be likely that my brother will run.”

Baldacci faces his own challenges, not the least of which is the fact that he is neither popular statewide, nor within his own party.  When he left office, most estimates put his approval rating in the 20s or low 30s.  That’s quite bad.

Still, he has a formidable political machine, an army of Baldacci family members to circulate his petitions, and would likely be able to make it on the ballot.  He could also raise money quickly (and may in fact have some left over from his gubernatorial campaigns) and make himself competitive.  Difficult positioning aside, he is the governor who signed gay marriage into law, extended state-provided healthcare coverage and increased spending on social services, all of which are things his base would like in the primary.

Tom Allen, Steve Rowe, Libby Mitchell, etc

Sometimes names get thrown around by national observers lazily because they don’t know much about the on the ground particularities of Maine.  These names are great examples of that kind of drive by analysis.  While there is certainly some possibility that one or more of them will jump in, they all remain highly unlikely candidates.

Allen is the most likely of the bunch, being a former congressman.  But in the time since his loss to Senator Collins in 2008, his political sphere has deteriorated, and he would have to start from virtual scratch to get a campaign going.  Given the small window, expect him to stay out.

Former gubernatorial candidates like Rowe and Mitchell have been talked about a lot today, but neither is very likely.  Both struggled to collect signatures for their 2010 bids, and both have stepped away from politics, and have little to no base to start with.  Asking them to run would be asking too much.

Hannah Pingree, Rosa Scarcelli, Adam Cote, and Ethan Strimling

If Pingree throws her hat into the ring, all of the attention will turn to these four to fight over the right to take her place in Congress.  Hannah Pingree, the last Democratic speaker, has her own political organization to draw from, and will undoubtedly ride the coattails of her mother’s machine to get on the ballot.  Being a significantly better candidate than Chellie doesn’t hurt either.  She would be the front-runner for this seat, and the most likely to actually get what is needed accomplished.

Scarcelli has been getting a lot of badand weird – press lately, but remains a young, energetic, well-liked figure would could potentially pull it off.  She has a loyal staff, some money to burn, and some good will from her gubernatorial primary.  She might be able to get on the ballot.

Cote and Strimling are also names constantly brought up, mostly due to their 2008 runs, and perpetual visibility in that district.  I have significant doubts Cote could get on the ballot so quickly, but with his recent Portland mayoral campaign, Strimling could potentially give it a shot with some success.  It still remains a lot to ask.

Emily Cain, Pat McGowan, etc

The Democratic bench in the second district isn’t very strong, so if Michaud makes a run for the Senate, Democrats become slight underdogs in that race.

Emily Cain has been mentioned by a lot of people for consideration in the Senate, but if the Pingrees, Michauds and Baldaccis of the world announce they are running, it is difficult to imagine why she would bother.  More likely, she would have to take a hard look at the second district race, being the current minority leader in the Maine House, and having an attractive home base in Penobscot county.  It would be a difficult decision, though, as she has an almost guaranteed state Senate seat waiting for her, and would likely be in party leadership immediately there.

McGowan had a very underwhelming gubernatorial bid in 2010, but he remains the man who came closest to ending the Snowe institution.  Twice.  He’s run in the district twice, nearly beating the strongest Republican in the state each time.  He, like so many others, let his political operation whither on the vine after his gubernatorial loss, but given his history and attractive profile for the second district, may be able to ramp up quickly.  I would remain skeptical of this, though, as McGowan would likely face a major shortage of money to run such an operation, running as a clean elections candidate in 2010.

There is a very real scenario where the Democratic party does not field any nominee of worth, assuming Michaud takes the leap.  If that happens, Senate President Raye would have to think hard about passing up a guaranteed spot in Congress for a potential, hard fought spot in the Senate.  Speaking of Raye…

The Republicans

The good news for Republicans: this is 2012, and they have managed to build an actual bench of talent in the state.  There are in fact a number of potential candidates who have the profile, stature and capability to not only compete for this seat, but actually win it.

Indeed, every candidate would be considered more conservative than Senator Snowe, but none of them would be considered right-wing extremists either.  In other words, they all occupy a good spot, ideologically, for the Maine electorate.

The bad news, of course, is that Snowe isn’t running.  In a year when the Republicans need to retake the United States Senate, losing what would have been a certain Republican hold makes that job very much harder.

Harder, but very much doable.

Kevin Raye

Of all the candidates on the Republican side, Raye would likely have the easiest time getting on the ballot.  Gearing up for a tough race against Congressman Michaud in the second district, his political operation is already up and running, and working hard for their candidate.  Changing gears on the fly to move over to the Senate side is something he is capable of doing.

But does he want to?  As I’ve mentioned more than once now, Michaud’s exit from the second district leaves a massive hole that Democrats will have a very difficult time filling.  Raye has already geared up to run there, and would be a strong favorite if Michaud was no longer running.

That said, Raye is very much looking at the Senate race.  It was only about an hour after Snowe’s announcement that Raye sent out a press release, lauding Senator Snowe for her service, reminding everyone that he was her Chief of Staff, and stating outright that “In light of Olympia’s decision, my wife Karen and I will carefully weigh our plans for 2012.”

Sounds an awful lot like somebody getting out in front of the field, and planting a flag.

Paul LePage

Let me state up front that I do not expect Governor LePage to jump into this race.  Indeed, at no time today did I hear anyone say he was interested, or push rumors that he was looking into it. His presence on this list is a factor of one thing.  I had the exact same conversation with more than a dozen people today.  It went a little something like this:

“So, that March 15th filing deadline is a big deal.  That limits the people who are even capable of doing it.  I mean, basically who are we talking about here who can pull that off?”

“Well, Paul LePage… Kevin Raye…”

LePage, as the sitting governor with a dedicated political machine, strong activist support, and money in the bank, could do it.  He is one of the few who could pull it off, and the name that was repeated every time that question was asked.

That said, LePage doesn’t strike me as the type who would enjoy Washington politics, he is wired for executive positions, and I doubt he’d really want to go campaign right now.  I suppose anything is possible, but while LePage could pull it off, I don’t expect him to even bother.

Steve Abbott and Charlie Summers

Abbott has done everything right since losing his gubernatorial primary.  The best move he made was disentangling himself from all things politics, and entrenching himself at the University of Maine as the (so far) very successful and very high profile Athletic Director.  He seems unquestionably more “real” and “down to earth” as a result, and every single thing written in ink about him in the last year has been glowing.

Most Republicans I spoke with said more or less the same thing:  “Honestly, I really want Abbott, but I doubt he wants to do it.”

Abbott is certainly in the moderate tradition given his affiliation with Senator Collins, but cut a somewhat more conservative profile during his 2010 bid.  This places him in the perfect position to run statewide.

The problem is, no one believes he wants the job.  Abbott has never held much affinity for Washington, D.C. (hard to blame him), and is widely believed to have chosen a crowded gubernatorial race over a more clear congressional race in 2010, because he loves Maine, wants to raise his kids here, and would prefer to stay.

Being a United States Senator would require a disruption to that plan – one he may simply be unwilling and uninterested in doing.  I’m hearing a lot of preemptive disappointment about him passing on the opportunity.

Charlie Summers is another “perfect fit” that you will likely see take a pass.  Much like Abbott, he is moderate with strong conservative tendencies, and has an impressive, attractive resume to run on.

Everyone looked to him as a potential candidate, but there just isn’t as much buzz about him as the others.  Importantly, as Secretary of State he doesn’t necessarily have the political organization (or money) to flip the switch and put all his chips in the middle of the table at the drop of a hat.

Both Abbott and Summers are the highest profile figures who are the least likely to actually jump in.  If one of them did jump in to the Senate race, though, my money is on Abbott.

Les Otten

Maine political observers have arrived at a consensus.  To undertake the Herculean task of getting the signatures to get on the ballot, you need one of two things: an established political machine, or a pot full of money.

Given the latter, I have heard Les Otten’s name repeated over and over today.  He certainly has the money to buy a team immediately and get this accomplished.  That said, there have been no indications from the Otten camp today that he is interested, or might pursue it.  His 2010 gubernatorial campaign was bruising and may have left a foul taste in his mouth.

Most of the folks listed here are so considered because they have been privately indicating their interest, publicly indicating it, or are too obvious to not include.  Otten has not to my knowledge been on the horn evaluating a run, but given the fact that he is unquestionably capable of doing this if he wanted, and that so many people are mentioning him, his place here is appropriate.

Jock McKernan

Child, please.

I saw the Washington Post hilariously suggest he was a potential replacement.  As interesting as it may be, I can’t think of a less likely bid.  But, I have been wrong before, so who knows.

Peter Cianchette

Former Ambassador Cianchette is still remembered very fondly for the spirited contest for governor he gave then congressman John Baldacci in 2002, doing a great deal better than anyone expected him to.

He also has money, and political loyalty.  Gold in a situation like this.

However, there are doubts about the speed with which Cianchette could assemble a team and execute a plan to get on the ballot.  Most of the former Cianchette campaign team is currently spread out, engaged in other things.  Calling them together, organizing them into a cohesive unit, and then accomplishing a goal as difficult as this may be a tall order.

Attractive as the opportunity may be, I think Cianchette stays on the sidelines.

Bruce Poliquin

Poliquin is in an interesting position.  My sources are telling me that he is very interested in exploring a Senate run, but the better option for him may in fact be running for congress in the first district.

Depending on what everyone else does, he may be in for (another) tough primary fight for the Senate race – a fight that would be winnable, but difficult.  But if, as I expect, Pingree jumps in the Senate race, he would instantly be the most viable Republican who could run for her vacated seat.  Indeed, he is the only person I can think of (realistically) that has the political base and money required to make a run at that seat on such short notice.

Being the Republican nominee in the first district isn’t the world’s most attractive position for a candidate, but in an open seat, with a financial advantage over the Democrat, and with the right message, it could be a real possibility, and one I believe to be better for Poliquin politically, than the Senate race.

Still, I’m told he is thinking very hard about Olympia’s seat, and he has the capability to do it at the drop of a hat.

Rick Bennett

Bennett is a name I didn’t expect to hear a lot today – but was presented with repeatedly.

The former Senate president and 1994 congressional candidate has been out of elective politics for quite some time, but his name always seems to be tossed around when the big elections come up.

Bennett’s political machine may have gathered dust, but could likely be activated quickly.  He is very close with the governor’s political adviser Brent Littlefield, and could potentially turn in that direction if he wanted to dip his feet in the water on this.  In addition, his relationship with key bankrollers (namely Bob Monks) means that he very well may be able to quickly put together the resources necessary for a run.

Bennett is another one of those names that people have been talking about, but I have yet to hear anything out of directly.  At this point, we really don’t know if he is even interested, but the frequency of name drops mean that there is a path out there for him if he wants it – both for the Senate race, as well as the second district.

Debra Plowman

Assuming both Michaud and Raye go all in for the Senate race, there will be a lot of pressure on Deb Plowman to run for Congress.

There is virtually no one else who is so universally acceptable (and capable) in the Republican party who could fill that void.

Plowman was uninterested in running in the second district with the incumbent Michaud and the sitting Senate president standing in her way, but with an open seat, she would be the logical choice, and the one the party – conservative and moderate alike – would most like to see.

However, as has been said repeatedly tonight, giving her two weeks to collect those signatures is a stiff challenge for a state Senator.

Final thoughts

It should be obvious, but this is not a normal race.  Had Senator Snowe announced her retirement months ago, we would be looking at an all out bloodbath, as every single Democrat and Republican who has ever been interested in her Senate seat would announce their intention to run, and massive, bloody primary battles would ensue on both sides.

But the parties only have two weeks to get this accomplished, which immediately pushes aside most of the potential candidates – former state house and senate members with no real operations or money – disqualifying them just from a logistical perspective.

That means that the only people who can even consider it are already established, or have money.  That narrows the field down considerably, likely to the people here on this list.  Indeed, many of the people I have talked about here will have problems themselves if they are interested.

Many – maybe even most – will either not try, or not succeed.  That gives the greatest advantage to folks like Pingree, Michaud and Raye, allowing them to clear out the field without any actual effort.

What happens is anyone’s guess.  This is as close to unpredictable political chaos as you can get.

One thing, however, is for certain.  We will know the complexion of this race within only a short few days.  If any candidates are going to make this attempt, it will – assuming the date is not somehow pushed back – need to begin almost immediately.

Look for some announcements tomorrow, Thursday and Friday.  Anyone who isn’t in by then is not going to be able to compete.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.