The contenders

The message from the Republican Party and Democratic Party could not have been more different Tuesday night.

On the left, Democrats gave an overwhelming victory to the most ideologically extreme left wing candidate in the field. The very moderate, inoffensive and amicable Democrat in the race, Matt Dunlap, never had a chance and was defeated easily.

Any primary, particularly one with low turnout, gives an edge to the extreme. Candidates who are able to capture the imagination of the most passionate, most intense voters (which happen to be the most likely ones to actually show up in the beginning of June to a polling place) are the ones who typically win. With Dill, this theory was proven.

But this was not the case in the Republican primary. The most conservative contenders in the primary – Poliquin, Bennett, D’Amboise and Plowman – all lost, and the victor, Charlie Summers, is the most moderate, centrist and collaborative option the GOP had.

And while Summers is undoubtedly more conservative than U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, he also has a much more realistic claim to the pragmatic independence Maine is so proud of than the anointed one, Angus King.

This certainly throws a monkey wrench into the narrative driven by the Democrats for longer than I can remember that the Republicans are lunatic extremists and the Democrats are about the sensible center.

So now that the dust has settled, what are we left with?

The conventional wisdom is, of course, that Angus King is already a United States senator and that what happened on Tuesday was little more than a footnote in his eventual march to Washington.

That could very well be true, but I think the particulars of this race now present a unique opportunity for King to be upset.

For whatever else you may want to say about her, Cynthia Dill is a contrast in this election. She stands out.  She is different. More importantly, though, she is aggressive. She has no intention of backing down, and she will attack Angus King.

With the national Democrats abandoning Maine and putting their faith in King’s eventual caucus vote for Harry Reid, Dill being the nominee is important. It is now the only way King will be engaged from the left.

Charlie Summers, by contrast, is not the kind of person who is going to go scorched earth on King, and because of that he will likely be somewhat above the fray, personally. That will not stop national Republican groups, though, from going decidedly negative on King.

This means King will be attacked from both the left and right and portrayed as an insincere and ineffective squish who holds no real conviction and will vanish in a sea of obscurity in Washington.

That won’t lead to his defeat by itself by any means, but it will drag him back down to reality and give Summers a shot at actually winning.

In 2010, Eliot Cutler almost won the Blaine House because he surged at the end, portraying himself as the leader of a third way style of politics, “spoiling” the race for the Democrats by peeling many of them away from Libby Mitchell.

In 2012, if King loses, it will be for the opposite reason. Starting from a position of dominance and a reputation for moderation, he will have the air let out from his balloon, and the parties will reap the benefit.

The most likely beneficiary of King’s eventual decline will obviously be Summers, as a pleasant and unassuming moderate Republican. The key question will be whether or not he will have the money to capitalize. Dill, by contrast, as the partisan bomb thrower, will almost unquestionably come in third.

I’ve said it more than once, but Angus King remains the favorite, and he will not be an easy candidate to dispense with. But the notion that this race is over continues to be misplaced, and the results from Tuesday provided the best opportunity to actually accomplish that.

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.