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"Patriot Pastor" (Associated Press/Photo by Robert F. Bukaty)

Right turn on Maine

Politics | With a pivotal Senate race in November, conservatives are increasingly energized in what has for decades been one of the most liberal states in the nation

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

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.

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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."

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