D'Amboise Has A Steep Hill To Climb (And It Is Covered In Snowe)

Oh like you didn’t expect plenty of Snowe puns in the next couple years.  Get used to it.

Our first guidepost of the 2012 Senate primary in Maine has passed, and has given us our first opportunity to actually compare and contrast the various campaigns.

That guidepost is money.

This morning, Jonathan Riskind reported on two first quarter fundraising numbers: one from incumbent Senator Olympia Snowe, and one from challenger Scott D’Amboise.  Andrew Ian Dodge has yet to release his number, though I would expect it to be quite low.  No Democrat has come forward to officially run, as of yet.

In the second quarter of 2011, Senator Snowe raised more than a million dollars, putting her at more than $2.74 million on hand.  Scott D’Amboise raised $117,394, of which he will have $90,000 on hand.  In other words, she raised roughly ten times the amount of money as D’Amboise, and he has only pennies on hand, by comparison.

Money isn’t everything in politics.  It is a myth that the most funded candidate in a race is going to be the winner (I rest my case).  There is perhaps no single thing in politics more overvalued and misunderstood as money.  But for as much as we overvalue money in politics (a lot), it isn’t as though money is irrelevant.

The reality is that money matters… to a point.

There is a threshold, above which you can credibly run a statewide campaign, no matter who the challenger is.  Things like producing media and purchasing advertising, organizing field operations, paying political and communications staff (just to start with), and engaging in the digital space are essential if you want enough people to even know who you are, let alone decide to vote for you.  That takes money.  If you make it above whatever point the threshold of credibility is, extra money is nice, but isn’t really going to make an enormous difference for you (diminishing returns).

However, if you struggle below that threshold, you will simply not be able to compete in the same ways.  And that is the place D’Amboise finds himself right now.

Scott D’Amboise has been running for the United States Senate for about two years now.  He announced his primary challenge to Snowe before the last election was even heating up.  He saw outsider, tea party candidates knocking off incumbents and establishment picks all over the country, and leaped into action to try to ride the wave.  But for all that time running, all the meetings he went to, all the connections he made, all the national press he got for taking on Snowe, all he came up with was $117,000.

D’Amboise has two rays of sunshine in that.  First, all of Snowe’s money can not buy an election win (she is far and away above that “threshold of competitiveness”), and second, media buying in Maine is dirt cheap, so he won’t need a massive sum of money to raise up his name ID and make his case to the voters.

But he is certainly going to have to do better than that, especially since his campaign seems consultant happy.

It will also be interesting to note, once the full reports are made available, just how much of D’Amboise’s limited money comes from within the state of Maine, and how much comes from outside groups, conservative activists from other states, etc.  This will tell us just how “grass roots” his funding is, which will be a great indication of support on the ground.

Based on how active he has been courting the national conservative base, who have long loathed Senator Snowe, and the tepid reaction he continually gets from activists on the ground, I would suspect a rather substantial proportion of his money comes from out of state.

And to be fair, Snowe’s money likely has plenty of out of state donors as well – but the thing to keep in mind here is that she is an institution in the state of Maine, the incumbent (and Senior) Senator, and to beat her the burden of demonstrating a grass roots uprising will be on the challenger, not Snowe herself.  Or put more simply, Snowe doesn’t need to activate a large scale network of Maine donors and activists to win the primary, but the person who has a chance to beat her, would.

And such a person – especially if he had any hope of winning the general election – would have to be taken seriously as well.  Be viewed as a rational, smart, capable statesman in the mold of so many Maine leaders that have come before.  And if you want to be taken seriously, you probably don’t want to make it known that you plan to show up to a meeting of the John Birch society.

Yes, the same John Birch society that even conservatives consider dangerous, paranoid, and embarrassing to the movement.  The organization that distracts and discredits us all.  The one that William F. Buckley considered something that needed to be “excommunicated from the conservative movement.”  The organization which conservative hero Ronald Reagan said of, “I am not a member. I have no intention of becoming a member. I am not going to solicit their support.” and that “a lunatic fringe had infiltrated the group.”

The same organization which as only gotten nuttier with time.  Not the best of ideas, Scott.

Regardless, this first test would seem to reconfirm the general impression most of us have been left with thus far, which is that Scott D’Amboise – he who lost to Mike Michaud by a rather embarrassing sum in 2006 while raising an extremely small sum of money – remains something of a gadfly candidate who has yet to establish credibility among any core group of voters in the state.

He may take comfort in Governor Paul LePage beating Les Otten in last year’s gubernatorial primary despite being wildly outspent, but as Lloyd Benson might say, “Mr. D’Amboise, you’re no Paul LePage”.  And for that matter, Les Otten is no Olympia Snowe.  And, for that matter, a seven person primary field with no high profile candidates isn’t exactly a two or three person race with a high profile incumbent against minor candidates.

It is not impossible for D’Amboise to win this race.  But he has an enormous financial gap, credibility gap, and stature gap, and he desperately needs to close all three if he is going to win.  The Tea Party Express descending on Maine (if they even do that) isn’t going to be enough to propel him to victory like certain races that still haunt my nightmares from 2010.  This will take a more serious approach, and a much more successful political machine.

Good luck, Scott.  That’s a big mountain to climb.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.