There have been two big shifts in Maine politics in recent years.

The first is obvious: The 2010 takeover of the House, Senate and governorship by the Republican Party for the first time in 40 years.

Yes, it was by narrow margins and yes, the governor’s race was complicated by a strong independent candidate, but the result and its effects are clear.

The second big shift is a little less obvious and has occurred more within the Republican Party itself.

For decades, Maine and New England were known as the home of a moderate strain of Republicanism. Icons such as Olympia Snowe and William Cohen enjoyed the support of their state party and had strong, respected voices nationally.

The political realignment that has occurred across the country, and the rentrenchment of the tea party movement, however, has meant drastic changes.

Snowe is now on her way out of office, citing “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies [that] has become pervasive” as her reason for not running for re-election. She made her decision after a round of local Party gatherings where her representatives were booed and where “Snowe Removal” bumper stickers and accusations of RINOism (being a Republican in Name Only) were a constant presence.

Recent polls have shown that only about 28 percent of Maine voters identify as supporters of the tea party, but this group now represents a strong majority of the Republican base.

The power of this new, more extreme right wing was made most evident in the primary and then general eelection victories of Gov. Paul LePage, who wholeheartedly embraced the tea party agenda, but the change is clear everywhere in Maine politics.

One might point to the candidacies of Charlie Summers for the U.S. Senate and Jon Courtney and Kevin Raye in the 1st and 2nd Districts of Congress to show that some candidates with less extreme histories still can win their parties’ nominations, but this ignores the specifics of these races.

Summers had to tack far to the right to win his primary. He changed his position on women’s reproductive rights and signed Grover Norquist’s “no taxes ever” pledge. This came after he had already refused to endorse Snowe for re-election.

Courtney only barely squeaked by in his primary against a tea party-backed candidate, winning by less than a single percentage point over a challenger with almost no name recognition and even less money.

Raye did a little better, but the virtually unknown tea party candidate in his primary still garnered 40 percent of the vote against the sitting state Senate president.

The Legislature has seen a similar shift. The Republican candidates elected in 2010 are almost uniformly more extreme than their partisan colleagues elected in previous years.

This has been evident on almost every issue heard by the Legislature. For the first time in decades, we’re seriously talking about rolling back women’s health care, child labor laws and environmental protections.

The largest tax cut for the wealthy in Maine history was passed at the same time we’ve seen deep cuts in health care for those who can least afford it. The insurance companies now have unprecedented license to raise premiums on older Mainers and small business owners.

Republicans even tried to restrict voting rights by eliminating Election Day registration, a move that was overwhelmingly rejected at the polls last year.

Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, is a good example of this shift to the far right.

Sirocki was recently named by the League of Conservation Voters as one of the 12 most anti-environmental legislators in the entire country for her votes against clean energy, clean water and keeping dangerous chemicals such as BPA out of household products.

It isn’t all about policy. The tone in Augusta also has become more extreme. LePage is obviously the poster boy for this, but it’s true of tea party state legislators as well.

I was just forwarded an email that Rep. Mike McClellan, R-Raymond, sent to his constituents, in which he refers to President Barack Obama’s parents as “large proponents of communisum (sic)” and accuses the president of being a “drug dealer.”

The fact that these extreme policies and these extreme statements are now a part of our discourse is deeply unfortunate.

On Nov. 6, we have a chance to change this. LePage isn’t on the ballot, but every representative and senator is. If the tea party loses just one chamber, there will finally be a check on their power and some moderation back in Maine politics.

 

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter. Email to writeba [email protected]

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