Mary Adams' political involvement in Maine began way back in 1973 when she left a school budget meeting bewildered over a new statewide property tax for education. Convinced that this should be a local issue, Adams, then a mother of two young children, launched a petition drive that after a lengthy fight led to the repeal of the tax.
"My daughter who was 5 when I started this had her ninth birthday the year the referendum passed," Adams says. "That's how long those things take. I was the person who picked up a stick and it ended up being the tail of a dragon."
Adams is now helping lead a growing conservative and Tea Party presence in a state where many outsiders think conservatives are extinct. And as with her property tax activism 39 years ago, her efforts today are bearing fruit: Maine no longer reliably elects liberals and may send a conservative to the U.S. Senate in November.
Less than two years ago, Tea Party-backed Paul LePage surprised everyone by ending a generation of moderate Republicans (they call them Rockefeller Republicans here) ruling the state GOP. And then he shocked folks even more by becoming the first Republican governor of Maine in 20 years. Republicans also took control of Maine's House and Senate, giving the party control of the governor's mansion and the state house at the same time for the first time since 1966. "The conservative movement in Maine is in the best position it has been in the last 45 years," argues Adams, who is in her early 70s.
Adams, who lives in Garland, Maine, moderates a monthly meeting of roughly 60 conservative leaders. The group celebrated its 10th anniversary this April. On meeting days, Adams gets up at 3:30 a.m., picks up doughnuts, coffee, and bagels, and drives her 2006 Ford Escape the nearly 90 minutes it takes to get to the state capital of Augusta.
The discussions at these meetings lately include the newest test for the state's emerging conservative movement: the battle over the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring moderate Republican Olympia Snowe. The contest is an important one on the national level. Republicans need to pick up four seats in order to take control of the U.S. Senate. Snowe's surprising retirement announcement suddenly turned Maine into a competitive state, making the overall battle for the Senate harder for the GOP. Yet some Maine Republicans see the challenge as an opportunity.
"People out on the right flank of the party do not like Olympia Snowe and haven't for years," says Lance Dutson, head of The Maine Heritage Policy Center. "The idea that she can be replaced with a more conservative senator I think can awaken a lot of conservative imaginations. That is something I don't think any of us thought would happen for a decade at least or more."
Six Republicans are facing off for the nomination in the state's June 12 primary: Secretary of State Charles Summers, state Attorney General William Schneider, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, state Sen. Debra Plowman, former Maine Senate President Richard Bennett, and Scott D'Amboise, who is the only candidate who entered the primary before Snowe announced her retirement. Conservative activists in the state seem to agree that all six would be more fiscally and socially to the right of Snowe.
Four Democrats are running in their party's primary. But the race's wildcard is the independent candidacy of former two-term Gov. Angus King. King enjoys a lead over all potential adversaries from both parties according to recent polls. With reddish grey hair and his signature mustache, King plays the role of the folksy grandfather who is above partisan bickering.
But King coyly refuses to declare which party he would caucus with if he wins the seat. In a sign of his leanings, his entry into the race scared off several high-profile Democrats, including another former governor and two current congressional representatives. King also supports President Barack Obama's reelection and recently said that the "shift of the Republican Party to the right, particularly on social issues, is disturbing."
"He became an independent out of convenience," Dutson says. "His record is 100 percent liberal."
King's entry has handcuffed Democrats both within the state and in Congress-many party leaders are fearful of how much vocal and financial support they can give the official Democrats in the race without upsetting King. Meanwhile, Republicans seem united against King. Top GOP party leaders are not waiting until after the primary results before going after the frontrunner. Gov. LePage said King "has made a fortune off the backs of Maine people."
That's a reference to King's stake in a wind company whose $102 million government loan guarantee is under a congressional probe. King sold his stake in the company shortly after announcing his run for Senate.
Republicans also have kept busy reminding Maine voters that the state enjoyed a budget surplus when King began his governorship in 1995 but suffered from a budget deficit when he left eight years later.
Maine conservatives are hoping that King's candidacy will create the same scenario that helped Republicans during the gubernatorial race here in 2010. Then, left-leaning independent candidate Eliot Cutler lured more Democrats than Republicans on his way to grabbing 36 percent of the vote. Democrat Libby Mitchell received just 19 percent of the vote, allowing LePage to win with only 38 percent.
The Republican candidates here are keeping a busy appearance schedule in their efforts to combat the advantage in name recognition enjoyed by King. At a recent candidate forum in Bangor, the contenders took turns addressing a crowd of nearly 100 who sat and munched on meatballs, cucumbers, and broccoli.
It was difficult to discern any real differences in the candidates' policy views. Each one railed against the government's spending habits: one candidate called them unsustainable, another called them outrageous, while a third called them immoral. One candidate said he is running for his children and grandchildren, while another candidate said the government has sold "my children and your children into servitude." All the candidates pledged to repeal Obamacare and unravel the welfare state.
After the event, attendees talked about the energy of the state's conservative movement. Charlie Smith of Stockton Springs, Maine, said he's seen neighbors scrape off Obama bumper stickers from the back of their cars. Jon Pottle, 31, said Maine has a lot of disgruntled people like the rest of the country who are just tired of big government.
Despite the enthusiasm and momentum, the Maine Republican Party faces internal challenges. During the party's state convention on May 6, time ran out before the six Senate candidates could take the stage. Many blamed supporters of Ron Paul for hijacking the convention and forcing the schedule to fall so far behind that the convention chairman, a Paul supporter, axed the 20-minute speaking slots set aside for the Senate candidates.
Shocked at their sudden inability to showcase themselves before the 2,800 people who registered for the convention, the candidates began delivering shortened versions of their speeches in stairways, atriums, and empty rooms near the convention's meeting hall. "This whole weekend had been an absolute fiasco," declared candidate D'Amboise while standing on a chair near his convention booth. By the time the messy convention ended, Paul supporters had won 21 out of the state's 24 delegates to the national convention.
Carroll Conley, the Christian Civic League of Maine executive director, said he is confident that conservatives will "lick their wounds" and rally behind the Republican primary winner. He said the momentum from the 2010 election is still strong enough to boost the Republican candidate that emerges this June.
"Maine is not as liberal as it was being governed," Conley says. "I think a lot of people in Maine were silent and really afraid to stand up for their conservative values. But the left pushed too far too hard."
Conley says another factor will influence this fall's election: A vote in Maine on same-sex marriage. In 2009 then Gov. John Baldacci signed into law a bill allowing same-sex marriages, but social conservatives put it on hold by successfully petitioning for a referendum, and the repeal passed by a 53 percent to 47 percent vote. In response, same-sex marriage advocates launched their own successful drive to place a voter initiative in favor of same-sex marriage on Maine ballots for this November.
Conley predicts that this ballot question will bring more conservatives to the polls and help the Republican candidate for Senate. But recent polls suggest that a majority of Maine voters support this newest gay marriage initiative, and some conservatives worry that voter fatigue over the issue could affect turnout.
Yet conservatives like Adams, the septuagenarian political activist, and Dutson say they see no evidence of fatigue in the state's conservative and Tea Party groups. Adams sometimes appears on stage with Gov. LePage, and she always tries to rally the troops with stories about her conservative activist days in the 1970s when, as she puts it, she often felt "lonely."
The Cook Political Report lists the Maine senate race as a toss-up, and Dutson of The Maine Heritage Policy Center says conservatives in 2012 are numerous and energized. "They know now something that they hadn't known in a generation," he says, "which is they can win."