Saturday, July 19, 2008

As Maine Goes ... ?

There used to be a saying that went like this: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation."

It was a tribute to Maine's reputation as a bellwether state.

That piece of conventional wisdom kind of fell into disfavor during the Depression, when only Maine and Vermont opposed the 1936 re-election bid of Franklin D. Roosevelt (prompting a Democratic strategist to quip, "As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.")

Once a rock-ribbed Republican state, in recent decades, Maine has trended more and more to the Democratic side, and, in 2008, the state is generally expected to vote with the rest of the New England states for Democrat Barack Obama for president.

But in the only apparently competitive race in the state (aside from the presidential campaign), the Republicans seem to hold the edge.

Republican Susan Collins has been representing Maine in the Senate since 1996, when she was elected with 49% of the vote to the Democrat's 44%. When Collins was re-elected in 2002, she received 58% of the vote.

Because the national mood has shifted dramatically since 2002 (when Collins joined the majority in the Senate in supporting the Iraq War resolution), Collins has been expected to face a stiff challenge in her bid for a third term.

Yet, Collins is more of a moderate — which places her to the left of most of her Republican colleagues in the Senate — and that may serve to insulate her in a place like Maine. She was one of the few Republican senators, for example, who voted to acquit Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial.

Collins' moderate voting record seems to help her in Maine — even though many people, including Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, believed the Democrats were positioned to capture her seat this year.

But Sabato writes, "Politics can be just like fishing. You can have the best equipment, find the best location, and have the perfect conditions, but sometimes, the fish just aren’t biting. That’s how Maine Democrat Tom Allen feels right about now."

To this point, there hasn't been much evidence of a coattail effect from Obama that could benefit Allen in his Senate race.

Allen has been representing Maine's first congressional district since 1996, and he's usually received 60% or more of his district's vote. He endorsed Obama's presidential bid in May, apparently hoping some of Obama's popularity in New England would rub off on his own campaign, and he's also been trying to link Collins to George W. Bush's policies.

But it hasn't been working. In Maine, as Sabato says, "the fish just aren't biting." While surveys don't mean much at this stage of a campaign, the recent polls have shown Collins consistently maintaining a double-digit lead over Allen.

Certainly there are Republican incumbents who face an uphill climb in their bids to be re-elected this year. Right now, Collins doesn't seem to be one of them.

Sabato says the Senate race in Maine "leans Republican."

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