Last Tuesday it was Republican Senator Olympia Snowe who stunned the political pundits with her announcement that she was tired of the partisanship games in Washington, and, reflecting on her 65 th birthday the week before, decided to call it quits.
Ironically, Sen. Snowe was the beneficiary of the first of those bailouts, when in 1994 the wildly popular Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell announced he was leaving, also about two weeks before Maine's filing deadline to get a candidate's name on a party primary ballot.
Snowe, who was then Maine's Second District Congresswoman, jumped into the race for Mitchell's open seat, running against my old boss, the very progressive First District Congressman Tom Andrews.
(With a population that hovers around 1.3 million people, Maine only has two, count-em, congressional districts.)
Two years after Mitchell's bombshell, the likewise popular Republican Senator William Cohen followed suit, also catching everyone by surprise when he announced he would not seek reelection. But he made that announcement in early January, not late February, giving potential candidates a few more weeks to catch their collective breaths and pull together suitable campaigns.
Since I was an active candidate for Congress when both George Mitchell (1994) and then Bill Cohen (1996) suddenly retired, the last week here in Maine politics, as Yogi Berra would say, really feels like deja vu all over again.
I was in the Democratic primary in 1994, running against Congresswoman Olympia Snowe, when Mitchell dropped out. While Snowe and Andrews got busy facing off, everyone crowded into "my" 2 nd CD primary.
I lost in a six-way Democratic primary race to longtime state legislator John Baldacci, who went on to win that seat, was in Congress for four terms, then ran for governor, winning two terms, leaving in 2010. My first book, "Proud to Be a Card-Carrying, Flag-Waving Patriotic American Liberal," was self-published after that run in an attempt to retire some campaign debt, which it did somewhat.
Snowe, as you know, won that U.S. Senate race in 1994, and Tom Andrews, last I heard, went on to head up "Win Without War," and is now in charge of "United to End Genocide."
In 1996, I had thrown my hat into the ring to run against Sen. Cohen. Since he had already attained the stature of a political icon, no one else wanted to take him on. Then he too suddenly retired (I tried to say it was because he didn't want to face me in an election, but for some reason folks didn't buy that) and I found myself in a five-way Democratic primary, won by Maine's former governor (1979-1987) Joe Brennan. Trying to stage a come-back, Brennan had bested Collins in the five-way race for Governor in 1994, but he came in second to Independent Angus King. So on paper, with King busy being governor, a second face-off with Collins two years later for a different seat looked good for Brennan. But it was not to be. That race resulted in my second book, "A Tale of Dirty Tricks: Susan Collins v. Public Record." (2002)
And, in 2006, I was the (now apparently last) Democrat who ran against the by-then-iconic Olympia Snowe. But that year, even with her votes for the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, against habeas corpus, and for Justices Alito and Roberts, I couldn't convince enough people that she was not really the moderate she claimed to be, and I got 22% of the vote.
But this time, as the political ground is shaking in Maine, I'm not a candidate. I have to admit, it is very different, and much easier on the gut, to be on the outside looking in.
And this time, the dust is starting to settle -- but in ways that didn't happen when the other two political icons in Maine called it quits.
As expected, names of potential candidates are jumping like fleas all over the political spectrum, with different lineups announced at every newscast. But after a flurry of "who's going to jump in," we're now seeing longer lists of people who are NOT going to jump in. That's different.
For instance, the two sitting Democratic Congressmen, Mike Michaud (2nd CD) and Chellie Pingree (1st CD) are not going to face off in a primary. After taking out U.S. Senate petition papers Wednesday, within hours of Snowe's announcement, Michaud said Friday that he's going to stay put, and run to keep his seat in Congress. (Under Maine law, he couldn't file papers for both seats.)
Republican State Senate President Kevin Raye, who is term-limited (8 years max) out of the state Legislature this year, and who was actively running against Michaud for the 2 nd CD slot, also decided to stay put and keep running against Michaud. This was a surprise to some, since Raye had been Snowe's chief of staff for 17 years and it was presumed he would jump at the chance to take his former boss's seat.
Same with Steve Abbott, Snowe's chief of staff who followed Raye in that position and held it for 12 years. He's now athletic director at UMaine, likes his well-paying job, and is not interested.
Likewise, many prominent Republicans, including several who had run for governor in past campaigns, have let it be known they're not interested.
The only names being touted at the moment are several high-ranking state officials (Secretary of State Charlie Summers, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, and Attorney Genreal William Schneider), along with Republican National Committeeman Rick Bennett. (A little-known conservative, Scott D'Amboise, was the lone Republican running against Snowe in the Republican primary when the bomb dropped.)
On the Democratic side, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a real progressive in the Tom Andrews vein, has all but declared for the seat. After losing to Susan Collins in the 2002 U.S. Senate race, Pingree became head of Common Cause for several years, before coming back to Maine to win the seat being vacated by Congressman Tom Allen (not Tom Andrews, different guy) when Allen ran unsuccessfully against Collins in 2008. So Pingree has been in DC for two terms, knows her way around, and has a lot of support in the state and nationally.
In the shake-down, three of the four Democrats who had previously announced they were running for U.S. Senate against Snowe have taken out papers to run for their respective U.S. House seats instead.
Cynthia Dill and Jon Hinck have both taken out papers to run for Pingree's 1 st CD seat (assuming it will be vacated). They may be joined in that race by Pingree's daughter Hannah, a political dynamo, who became Speaker of the Maine House at the age of 33.
After Snowe's announcement, the third Democrat who was willing to challenge Snowe, former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, immediately took out papers to run for the 2 nd CD. But that was before Michaud said he was staying put, so it remains to be seen if Dunlap will turn in his petitions, creating a Democratic primary run-off with incumbent Michaud in June.
An then there's this -- After disappearing since he was term-limited as governor in 2010, Democrat John Baldacci has suddenly reappeared and is making noises about running for U.S. Senate, which would put him in a primary with Pingree. Big mistake, in my humble opinion. I know he's bored, but he owes her. Term-limited state Senator Pingree was thinking of running for governor in 2002, but she deferred to Baldacci , and instead ran against Collins. He won, she didn't. And when, as the incumbent governor, Baldacci ran for reelection in 2006, he was so unpopular that, although he was the top vote-getter, it amounted to only 38 percent of the vote.
But then again, strange things have been known to happen in Maine politics. In 2010, an almost identical 38% of Maine voters cast ballots for the Tea Party candidate Paul LePage. Maine is a plurality state, so LePage won as the highest vote-getter in a five-way race. The Democratic challenger, former Speaker of the House and state Senate President Libby Mitchell, came in third, garnering fewer votes than I did against Olympia Snowe in 2006, which surprised me, given her vast political credentials and my own lack thereof. (Independent Eliot Cutler came in second, only a few percentage points behind LePage.)
Back to now -- A wild card in all the speculation floating around is whether or not former Maine Independent Governor Angus King runs for U.S. Senate, which he is threatening to do. But, unlike the party candidates, King has a few more weeks to make up his mind.
The way things work in Maine, if you are a party candidate for U.S. Senate (Democrat, Republican or Green Independent) you need 2,000 members of your party to nominate you on petition papers, with those signatures verified by local town clerks and turned into the Secretary of State's office by 5 p.m. March 15. If you are running for either of the two Congressional seats, to get on the June primary ballot you need 1,000 signatures of party members who live in your district, likewise processed and into the Secretary of State by 5 p.m. March 15.
But if you are an independent (aka unenrolled) candidate for those same offices, you have until June 1 to get your signatures collected, processed and into the Secretary of State's office. The difference is that, as an independent, you need to collect twice the number of signatures for the office you seek, but you have the advantage of being able to collect those signatures from any registered Maine voter, of any party or of no party (unenolled).
That March 15 filing deadline is the reason so much scrambling is going on these days. Collecting 2,000 signatures in two weeks, and having them all verified and confirmed before 5 p.m. that critical March 15 day, is a monumental task. Those candidates who already had an active campaign going of course have the advantage over late arrivals.
That means that the list of candidates who have taken out nomination papers only measures the level of interest. Chances are many will not reach the 1,000 or 2,000 threshold, and will not be on the June primary ballot. March 15 is coming right up. We won't have long to wait.
And finally -- Maine is a small state politically, if not in size (the Second Congressional District is largest geographically east of the Mississippi).
With all those campaigns under my belt, in all this upheaval, I'm realizing that I'm on first-name basis with all the Democrats in this drama, and many of the Republicans. Which I think is a remarkable, and nice, place for this daughter of a steelworker from Youngstown Ohio, who moved to Maine in 1972 to homestead in the woods, to be.