Politics & Policy

Maine’s Wide-Open Primary

Charlie Summers, Maine’s secretary of state
Olympia Snowe’s retirement leaves an open field.

When Senator Olympia Snowe (R., Me.) unexpectedly announced she would retire at the end of her term, the Pine Tree State’s political scene erupted. Six candidates have entered the race for the Republican nomination to succeed Snowe, and all of them have spoken with National Review Online about their infant campaigns.

Currently, ex-governor Angus King, an independent, leads all the Republican and Democratic candidates by large margins. But King is a known quantity — or at least a vaguely remembered one. If the Maine GOP fields a strong candidate, and the Democratic party offers a mediocre one, Republicans could triumph in a three-way split, à la Governor Paul LePage’s victory in 2010. Here’s a look at the contenders who will face off in the primary on June 12.

RICK BENNETT

From Oxford, Maine, Rick Bennett is the state’s Republican national committeeman. He also is CEO of GMI Ratings, a research firm headquartered in Portland. In his previous political life, he served two terms in the state House of Representatives and three terms in the state Senate, including a stint as president of the Senate starting in 2002. The closest he has come to Congress was a tough loss to John Baldacci, 46 to 41 percent, in 1994, in Maine’s 2nd congressional district. Bennett walked 750 miles while campaigning that year, as the 2nd district is the largest one east of the Mississippi River.

#ad#“I didn’t expect to be running for elected office this spring,” Bennett, who was the treasurer of Snowe’s reelection campaign, tells NRO. “When Olympia Snowe decided to retire, it wasn’t my first inclination.”

However, he explains, “I have a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old. They’re wonderful kids I’ll be releasing into the world in a few years, and I frankly worry about the world I’m going to be releasing them into.” He especially laments that the Senate under Harry Reid has repeatedly failed to pass a budget. This “total abdication” of responsibility for budgeting is “nearly criminal,” he says.

Representative Paul Ryan has earned Bennett’s esteem “for putting forward a budget and taking responsibility,” and Bennett singles out for particular praise Ryan’s plan to transform a number of federal programs into block grants to the states. A caveat: “I think some of his other proposals relating to tax policy deserve to be debated,” he says. “I am reviewing those currently.”

Meanwhile, Bennett has budget ideas of his own. Specifically, he plans to revive a plank from his 1994 campaign, calling for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

On foreign policy, Bennett says: “I’m a staunch advocate for the strong alliance we have with Israel. I do think the Obama administration has been sending some mixed messages to Iran, and I think we need to take a very tough line.” And Afghanistan? “Like most Americans, I’d like to see our troops come home as soon as possible, but setting timetables and telling the Taliban when we’re coming home isn’t healthy.”

Bennett distinguishes himself from the other candidates by noting his work history. “I’m different because I haven’t spent my whole life in elected office,” he says. “I’ve been creating jobs.” 

#page#SCOTT D’AMBOISE

Scott D’Amboise, from Lisbon, Maine, has been running for the nomination since 2010. Originally, he hoped to defeat Snowe in a primary, and now he hopes to beat the “Snowe disciples” in the field.

“They’re all career politicians,” he tells NRO. “They’re all Olympia Snowe recycles, and I’m not.” Not that D’Amboise lacks political experience. He served one term as a selectman in Lisbon, and he ran for Congress in the 2nd district in 2006.

He gives clipped answers to policy questions. On Ryan’s budget, he says, “I am still studying it, but I support what I’ve read thus far.” On our efforts overseas, he offers: “I think we’ve done all we can do in Afghanistan. I think it’s time we bring our troops home.” He also advocates cutting foreign aid to Pakistan. He supports “very strong sanctions” on Iran but adds, “I don’t think we should ever have to put one American boot on Iranian soil.”

#ad#D’Amboise drew scorn from much of the state media for his demand that Snowe resign after the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Education Management Corporation, which had employed her husband, John McKernan, for more than a decade. (McKernan was not listed as a defendant.) When D’Amboise claimed that McKernan had defrauded the federal government of student aid through the company, the Portland Press Herald sternly rebuked him: “This happens to be a flat-out lie with absolutely no substantiation.”

DEBRA PLOWMAN

Debra Plowman, from Hampden, Maine, is a state senator for the 33rd district. She has been in the Maine legislature for 16 years, starting with her election to the state House of Representatives in 1992. In 2000, she took a sabbatical from politics, working for a few years at her family’s business, PDQ (“Pretty Darn Quick”) Door, a garage-door company. In 2004, she returned to elected office as a state senator.

Plowman emphasizes her ability to forge what she calls legislative “resolution.” For 14 out of the 16 years she has been in office, she has been in the minority. “I understand that conflict does not mean a breakdown,” she says. “Conflict is what I do. It’s what I’ve done for 16 years: conflict and then resolution. What we need more of in Washington is resolution.”

Like Bennett, she stresses her experience as a small-business owner: “I know what it takes to sign the front of a paycheck and hopefully the back of a paycheck.”

Asked about Ryan’s budget, Plowman replies: “I don’t ever say that I’m going to support something. I think I would have a few problems with it — it might be a little bit more than I would vote for.”

Like D’Amboise, she’s skeptical of our efforts in Afghanistan: “At some point you have to realize you can’t change the hearts and minds of a culture. I think it’s time for us to bring people home, but we should not say we’re going to be isolationist.” Of Iran, she says, “I really believe that sanctions don’t work, but we should continue with the diplomacy.” There are probably, she adds, “some negotiations going on that we’ll never know about.”

#page#BRUCE POLIQUIN

From Waterville, Maine, Bruce Poliquin is the state treasurer, a position he has held since 2010. He ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination that year, but after losing to Paul LePage, he campaigned vigorously for the nominee. The newly Republican-controlled state legislature appointed him treasurer at the end of the year.

“I’m running because I have concluded that Maine is so dependent on Washington that we cannot fully fix the fiscal mess in Maine without addressing head-on the financial crisis in Washington,” he says. Poliquin was in the private sector for 35 years, working at an investment-management firm and other small businesses around the state. Asked to differentiate himself from the other candidates, he says: “First, I’m the only candidate who has run a statewide campaign before. Second, I’m the only true fiscal conservative with a track record. And third, we’ve been very successful at fund-raising.”

#ad#“I’m very encouraged by and impressed with Congressman Ryan,” Poliquin says. “The part I like about his budget is that he’s dead serious about cutting all of government spending. I don’t think he cuts enough soon enough, but he also is very serious about paying down our debt.” Poliquin has a plan of his own for saving Social Security: “The way to do it is raise the retirement age for new entrants and also slow down the rate of growth of benefits.”

On foreign policy, Poliquin’s perspective is more general: “If I have the honor to serve the state of Maine in the United States Senate, I will make it very clear what I will need to know in order to get behind the use of military force: why we’re going in to wherever it may be, what our objectives are once we get there, what the trigger points will be to determine when we’re going to leave, and what it will cost. Military intervention should be rare, legal, and constitutional, and we need to bring our kids home.”

BILL SCHNEIDER

Like Poliquin, Attorney General Bill Schneider has been in his current office for a little over a year. He graduated from West Point in 1981 and served in the U.S. Army as a Green Beret until he broke his back in a service-related injury; he will have to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Schneider thinks his military service makes him stand out.

“As Senator Snowe has said, the environment in the U.S. Senate is difficult and partisan,” Schneider says. “I have done difficult things, like jumping out of planes at night in a foreign country. I do use a wheelchair, and putting my life together and returning to public service after that life-altering injury is a difficult thing that I’ve done successfully. I’m not afraid of a difficult environment in Washington. I’ll be able to accomplish things nonetheless.”

On the issues, Schneider speaks broadly. “I think Paul Ryan’s approach to the budget is good,” he says. “But I think we need to take a step back. We need to have a balanced-budget amendment. We can’t continue to borrow for our current needs.”

Concerning Social Security, Schneider observes, “I think people who are nearing retirement age need to get what they’ve been expecting, but going forward, we need to look at the expected expenditures and income and change them so they’ll work.”

He speaks with special passion about the military. “Having an announced timeline for withdrawal is extremely irresponsible,” he says. “The mission in Afghanistan is to make sure the Taliban and al-Qaeda can’t go back and use it as a home base. When we’ve done that, I think we will have accomplished our mission and will bring our troops home.”

Schneider is optimistic when it comes to Iran: It’s “very possible” to obstruct their nuclear-weapons program, he maintains. “We need to take a hard line with the Iranians and make it absolutely clear we will not tolerate their development of a nuclear weapon. Every option is on the table.”

#page#Charlie Summers

Scarborough native Charlie Summers, Maine’s secretary of state, is the current front-runner, according to recent polls. Like Schneider, he is a veteran, but his active-duty service is more recent. He joined the Navy Reserve in 1996. In 2007, he was deployed to Iraq, and in 2009–10, he served on the staff of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen.

Before his deployment to Iraq, Summers served from 2005 to 2007 as the New England regional administrator for the Small Business Administration and from 1995 to 2004 as state director of Snowe’s Senate office. And back in 1990, he became the first Republican elected to the state Senate from the 31st district.

#ad#“I not only support our troops, I am one of them,” Summers tells NRO. He also highlights his focus on small business. “As secretary of state, I lobbied successfully to establish a position within the secretary of state’s office for a small-business advocate,” he says. “In the six months that this small-business advocate has been on the job, he has been able to save money for four separate small businesses — for one of them, he saved almost half a million dollars in regulatory fines.”

“I think Congressman Ryan is right on in terms of getting spending under control,” he says. “I operate from the premise that you cannot spend what you don’t have. I did that as a state legislator. The very first bill I introduced in the Maine Senate was a bill to repeal a pay increase for state legislators.”

At the national level, Summers says, “In terms of entitlement programs and welfare spending, we need to crack down on fraud.”

Like Schneider, he opposes a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. “I can tell you that trying to set a deadline for when United States troops will leave Afghanistan is not the right approach to take. We can’t leave until the situation on the ground warrants. The Haqqani network is alive and well, and I think our efforts in Afghanistan are worthwhile, because that’s the area of the world that is fomenting terror.”

Summers currently has the highest name recognition of any of the candidates, and polls show him winning 28 percent of the vote; Poliquin is predicted to win 12 percent; Bennett, 7 percent; Plowman, 6 percent; D’Amboise, 4 percent; and Schneider, 4 percent. But after raising $108,000 in one month, Bennett has the most money, according to public reports. This primary is wide open.

Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.

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