When U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe made her surprise announcement in February that she would not seek re-election, she condemned the “atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies” in Washington and stressed the “vital need for the political center in order for our democracy to flourish.”
But in Maine, her political donations this year went exclusively to Republicans, including Gov. Paul LePage and a number of legislative candidates few would identify with the political center.
The scale of giving was not enormous. Snowe for Senate, using campaign money that Snowe didn’t need, donated $19,545 to Maine candidates and political action committees from Feb. 28, when Snowe announced her retirement, until Oct. 1, when the campaign organization was renamed Olympia’s List and refocused on supporting “individuals who will follow the principles of consensus-building.”
Nearly a third of the donations went to entities that supported Republican legislative candidates. Snowe for Senate gave $1,000 to the Maine Senate Republican Fund, $4,500 to the Republican Speakers Fund and $895 to the Maine Republican Party.
Another $3,000 went to LePage’s 2014 re-election campaign, in two transfers made on July 10.
The rest went to 35 Republican legislative candidates, each of whom received $350, the maximum allowed. Recipients included conservative Republicans well outside the political center, including:
* Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, one of only four senators to receive a perfect 100 percent rating from Maine People Before Politics, LePage’s political organization.
* House Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, who in the last session received a zero percent rating from the liberal Maine Peoples Alliance.
* Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, whom the Washington, D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters named to its nationwide “dirty dozen” list of the “most anti-environmental politicians running in competitive races this year.”
* Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who took offense when a Unitarian minister led the Legislature in a prayer to God “in all your many names — Yahweh, Allah, God.” Volk was criticized by liberal groups for posting “Someone needs to let her know we’re not a Muslim nation” on her Facebook page.
* Seven other Republican House members who received 100 percent scores from Maine People Before Politics.
Snowe also recorded a campaign phone call in support of Volk and appeared in a television ad supporting Chris Tyll, a Republican who challenged independent Sen. Richard Woodbury, whose ratings from Maine People Before Politics and the Maine Peoples Alliance would make him the most centrist state senator.
Snowe’s campaign treasurer, Lucas Caron, said the campaign gave to candidates who backed Snowe’s re-election before she withdrew.
“The senator had supported anybody who supported her race, and that was done by Snowe for Senate before it closed its books on Oct. 1,” Caron said.
“Sen. Snowe felt pretty strongly that we should do all our giving before Olympia’s List came into being,” he said. “It is not an indicator of how the PAC will be involved in politics going forward.”
According to the Federal Election Commission’s campaign finance databases, Snowe’s Senate campaigns never received donations from Mason, Cushing, Sirocki, Volk, Tyll or LePage.
Caron said each either endorsed Snowe or worked for her re-election, for instance by serving as town or county campaign chair.
In addition to the $3,000 donation from Snowe for Senate, LePage’s re-election campaign received $3,000 from Snowe’s husband, former Gov. John McKernan, on March 9.
Despite being affiliated with rival wings of their party, Snowe and LePage have actively supported one another. Snowe endorsed and gave to LePage in his 2010 gubernatorial run, and has continued to support him.
LePage, who ran away from an abusive home when he was 11, has said that Snowe’s first husband, the late Peter Snowe, helped him gain admission to Husson College and helped pay his first year’s tuition.
LePage endorsed Snowe last year, upsetting some of his tea party supporters.
Snowe for Senate became Olympia’s List with about $500,000 to use for political purposes. (Another $1.2 million has been set aside to create a women’s leadership institute.) On the organization’s website, Snowe says Olympia’s List seeks to support candidates with a “commitment to solving our nation’s problems.”
The website features a list of centrists in Congress produced by the nonpartisan National Journal, including Democrats, Republicans and independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman. The magazine gave all members of Congress liberal and conservative “composite index ratings” of 0 to 100. Nobody with a conservative or liberal rating higher than 65 is featured by Olympia’s List.
Caron, who runs Olympia’s List, said the National Journal list is “one of the things we would look at” in deciding whom to support but formal criteria have yet to be developed. He said it hasn’t yet been decided whether the organization will be involved in state-level races or concentrate solely on federal ones.
Several political observers said they were not surprised by Snowe’s pattern of giving.
“A successful career in politics is about creating and maintaining relationships, and if Olympia Snowe feels like she owes a variety of state legislators who have helped her carry her agenda in the past, it makes sense to help them now,” said Ron Schmidt, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine.
“If it’s money that came in before she founded the new organization, I think they would probably say this was money donated to Olympia Snowe on the basis that she was a Republican and to help Republican causes and Republicans in Maine,” said Jim Melcher, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine Farmington. “It would be a tough sell for them to say, ‘Hey, we gave this money to elect moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats.'”
Emily Shaw, assistant professor of political science at Thomas College, said the contributions may be compensation for leaving the party little time to find another U.S. Senate candidate and not backing its nominee, Charlie Summers, who had not endorsed Snowe when asked.
“The relationship between Snowe and the Maine Republican Party is a long and deep one, so she may have had to mend fences,” Shaw said.
Snowe did campaign for her former chief of staff, outgoing state Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
“It may be a combination of loyalty and a desperation to keep the (Maine) House and Senate,” said Andrew Ian Dodge, a former tea party organizer who initially challenged Snowe for the Republican nomination, then ran as an independent in the general election.
“As much as I’m critical of LePage and Snowe,” he said, “that kind of loyalty, when someone goes out of their way to help you, is impressive.”
Melcher said he expects Olympia’s List to behave very differently from Snowe for Senate.
“I suspect you’ll see a very different pattern two years from now,” he said, “because it would be hard to sell an organization like that to new donors that come in if you’re only supporting Republicans.”
Olympia’s List will develop criteria before the 2014 campaign, Caron said, and has not given any political donations since coming into existence Oct. 1.