Olympia Snowe and the Slow Death of the Tea Party Primary

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 20: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) heads into a closed session of the Senate about the new START Treaty, a ratification of a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia, in the U.S. Capitol December 20, 2010 in Washington, DC. The treaty, which was signed by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev eight months ago, needs at least 67 votes to be ratified. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Back in August, I boldly* predicted that no Tea Party primary challenge of a Republican incumbent would succeed in 2012. They’ll get a lot of attention. They won’t quite pull it off. One of my examples, Indiana’s U.S. Senate fight, has gotten a little dicier as a second Tea Partier decided not to split the vote, leaving Sen. Richard Lugar with only one challenger – a better situation for the Tea Party.

But Indiana’s a primary state. Maine and Utah, where party conventions play pivotal roles in the nominating process, looked like the riper targets for takeovers. And here comes Public Policy Polling, which had found serious Snowe weakness in the past, finding her back in command with Republican voters.

In March 56% of GOP voters felt that Snowe was too liberal.  Now only 41% express that opinion. Democrats (from 31% to 41%) and independents (from 13% to 19%) increasingly think that Snowe is too conservative but obviously that’s not hurting her overall standing.

In March the sentiment of 41% of voters in the state was that Snowe should leave the Republican Party and become an independent, compared to 28% who thought she should stick with the GOP.  But now 47% think Republican is her rightful label, to only 24% who think she should be an independent.

What happened? There are some answers in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, in Colin Woodard’s story about the geographic arrangement of ideological movements. (It’s interesting. Read it.)

The Tea Party itself has been all but destroyed in Maine by its association with the debt ceiling hostage takers in Washington, according to Andrew Ian Dodge, founder of the organization Maine Tea Party Patriots and the state movement’s most high-profile activist. “There were people saying, ‘Yes, I think we should default,’ and there were the rest of us saying, ‘You’re insane,’ ” says Dodge, a dark-horse challenger to Snowe. “Now I’m emphasizing my Tea Party links even less because a lot of people think they are the crazy people who almost drove us off a cliff.”

The founder of a Tea Party group, one of the most-quoted representatives of the movement, is soft-peddling his Tea Party cred because of the debt fight. Three months after the spin about who “won” the issue, is this confirmation that the Tea Party lost it?

*my favorite euphemism for “stupidly”