The conservative movement turns its eyes to Maine

Bruce Poliquin Contributor
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Something refreshing has begun to happen in the state of Maine.

Once a Republican stronghold – Maine voted against FDR in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944 (in 1936 it was one of just two states to do so) – Maine has been a lost cause for conservatives in the past decade or so.  Yet lately, the conservative movement has begun to invest serious energy in Maine.

The Heritage Foundation made a stop in Maine on its ‘Fiscal Wake-Up Tour’, educating Americans on the costs of America’s entitlement obligations.  Heritage has also reached out to Maine’s senators regarding health care policy. Conservatives have also forced liberals to spend money and counter-attack. For example, a left wing organization is actually on the ground advocating daily for Obamacare.

In 2009, the National Taxpayers Union helped put a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) referendum on the ballot. At the eleventh hour, however, union money poured into Maine advertising against TABOR, successfully killing what had been polling as a popular measure throughout the preceding summer. In this effort, TABOR proponents were outspent by more than six to one.

Things are beginning to look up, though. Less than two months ago, Americans for Prosperity launched a Maine Chapter, which is devoted to recruiting and training activists in favor of economic growth.  Just last month, Marco Rubio, staunch conservative and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Florida, paid a visit to the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Additionally, talk radio host Howie Carr spent a day with conservative Maine congressional candidates Jason Levesque and Dean Scontras—both recently endorsed by Mitt Romney, news that made National Review.   Conservative Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund and free market strategist Grover Norquist also have visited Maine in the past year.

There’s a reason all these political and opinion leaders have traveled here: they realize Maine is winnable for conservatives. Big Labor must realize this, too. That’s why it spends lots of money to defeat pro-growth and limited-government referenda, and pours substantial cash into the campaign coffers of Maine’s Democrat congressional representatives.

For example, Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME-02), who now has his first serious challenger in Levesque since 2002, has a PAC donor list that reads like a Who’s Who of Big Labor.  In second quarter fundraising reports just released, Levesque’s grassroots efforts have earned him more individual donors from Maine than Michaud, yet the Congressman has maintained a comfortable fundraising lead thanks to PAC money.

Similarly, in the June 8 primary, Maine’s Republican gubernatorial candidates received a total of 130,000 votes, compared to 120,000 for the Democratic candidates – even though both races were hotly contested, multi-candidate primaries with no obvious frontrunners. The Maine GOP, in fact, had its highest primary turnout since 1952. Perhaps even more telling, a Maine GOP-led people’s veto referendum to reject Democrat tax reform legislation that shifted the tax burden without reducing it, won with overwhelming support.

Ben Dudley, leader of a coalition of more than 160 progressive groups called Engage Maine, understands what’s going on.  After his coalition had to vastly outspend free-market proponents to defeat the TABOR referendum last fall, he had this to say about the state conservative think tank Maine Heritage Policy Center in an internal email to Mark Gray, head of the Maine Education Association:

Looking at PAC expenditures (not including all the in-kind spending) on both sides, TABOR Now and More Green Now spent about $280,000 on offense…while Citizens Unified spent $1.8 million on defense.  Obviously this isn’t sustainable for us. It’s also bad for Maine for such [a] reckless and skillful group to be able to wreak so much havoc with so few resources.

Dudley is right to be worried. Republicans represented Maine’s U.S. Second Congressional District from 1973 to 1995. From 1995 to present, Democrats John Baldacci and Mike Michaud have held the seat, thanks to a mixture of weak opponents, national union money, and an ability to appear moderate (or at least not liberal).

This last advantage evaporated with the Nancy Pelosi takeover of Congress in the 2006 elections.  Under Pelosi, Congressman Michaud has cast a series of votes in favor of liberal legislation opposed by his non-liberal district – among them the national health care reform bill, energy taxes (cap and trade), and the non-stimulating  ‘stimulus’.  He has voted with Pelosi more than 95 percent of the time – a fact Levesque can be expected to point out regularly during his campaign.

Maine’s congressional Democrats also no longer face walkover opponents. Levesque (ME-02) and Scontras (ME-01) are the strongest Republican congressional candidates Maine has seen in years.  The Democratic advantage that does remain, however, is its national left wing money.

Conservative candidates can win in Maine in 2010 if they can counter the national money that will pour into their opponents’ campaigns. Mainers need to hear more voices than those of national labor unions and liberal advocacy groups. They need to know their representatives say one moderate thing in Maine and do another quite liberal thing in Washington.

Contrary to Beltway conventional wisdom in recent years, Maine is a state conservatives can and should win. If conservatives and other pro-growth advocates want to turn a blue state red, now is the time for them to pull out their checkbooks and fight back.

Bruce Poliquin, former 2010 Maine Republican gubernatorial candidate and private sector business manager and owner, is a longtime active member of the Heritage Foundation.