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August 24 - August 31, 2000

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Assisted political suicide

Mark Lawrence, Olympia Snowe's Democratic challenger, isn't the first sacrificial lamb to view an electoral slaughter as a stepping stone to higher office. But as Maine's political past shows, this strategy never works.

by Lance Tapley

lamb to the slaughter Why does Mark Lawrence, US Sen. Olympia Snowe's Democratic challenger, want to commit political suicide at the tender age of 42?

Political observers agree that Snowe, a Republican, the most successful politician in Maine since World War 2, will trounce him badly this November. Most of them suspect that Lawrence, the term-limited president of the Maine Senate, is playing the part of what is known in the political trade as a "sacrificial lamb" to put himself in a position to run for Congress or governor two years hence.

"By running for Congress this year, Lawrence . . . will become better known to voters and can build goodwill among party activists that could pay off in the year 2002," writes Steve Campbell, the Portland newspapers' Washington correspondent. Remarks by Lawrence and his campaign manager indicate this scenario is on their minds.

However, it has never worked in Maine. A survey of the results of all top races for the past 30 years -- for governor, US senator, and US representative -- shows not a single instance that an uncompetitive sacrificial lamb has gone on to win a future election to high office. The lamb's strategy, offering yourself up to be beaten by a popular, well-financed incumbent in a general election, is political suicide. No resurrection is allowed.

Christian Potholm, a Bowdoin College government professor and Maine's most experienced pollster, agrees. "They believe in this model. I don't believe in it. Maine politics doesn't support it," he says, trying to explain why Lawrence may think he can live politically to fight another day.

WHAT HE'S UP AGAINST: HISTORY AND HER STORY

"This is a David-and-Goliath race," Mark Lawrence concedes. "She has a lot in her arsenal."

That's putting it mildly. Olympia Snowe, 53, won eight races for Congress in the Second District before winning the US Senate seat in 1994 against First District Rep. Tom Andrews when George Mitchell announced his retirement. She has never lost an election. She is "the standard against which all post-war political figures must be judged in terms of electoral success," Potholm writes in his 1998 book An Insider's Guide to Maine Politics: 1946-1996.

Potholm, who has advised many successful Maine politicians -- generally Republican -- including former US Senator and now Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a Republican, and Gov. Angus King, an independent, says Snowe is currently polling around 75 percent positive in how the public perceives her, her highest level ever. Campaign finance reports as of June 30 show that she had $1.2 million cash on hand as opposed to Lawrence's $104,000.

It gets worse (or better, depending on your point of view). Snowe's politics match the winning combination for Maine high office: independent-minded, moderate -- like Cohen, like King, like Snowe's husband, former Republican Gov. John McKernan, like our other US senator, Susan Collins, also a Republican -- and, going back a ways, like Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who set the mold for independent, moderate Republicans, especially in our unusual tradition of sending women to the US Senate.

"It's uncanny how Olympia and Susan sound like Margaret at the top of her game," muses Potholm. At the top of her game Sen. Smith gained a place in the history books by denouncing right-wing demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a fellow Republican, in the midst of the red-baiting 1950s. This kind of nonpartisanship Snowe and Collins followed in voting against Bill Clinton's removal from office last year in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The two women also are pro-choice and considerably to the left of most Republican senators on a number of other issues.

Nonpartisan actions bring bipartisan rewards. Recently several Democratic women US senators, putting sisterly respect above political party, pledged not to campaign against Snowe. Maryland's Barbara Mikulski, for example, declared on CNN's "Larry King Live" in July that Snowe "is a great woman." She even apologized to Snowe for helping her Democratic rival in 1994. Especially after seeing this "gushing over her" from prominent Democrats, says John Day, the Bangor Daily News columnist who has reported from Washington for decades, "nobody has Snowe on an endangered list" in the nation's capital.

Anyway, US senators usually get re-elected. It didn't happen in 1972 when Democrat William Hathaway finally turned Smith out of office and then in 1978 when Bill Cohen removed Hathaway. But the successful challengers were not sacrificial lambs. They were popular, well-financed congressmen who were from the outset given good chances to overthrow the incumbent.

Generally, incumbents win. In the past 30 years in Maine an incumbent governor has never been beaten, and the same is true for US representatives with the exception of the First District defeats of Republican James Longley Jr. in 1996 and Democrat Peter Kyros in 1974. However, it was no lamb but a ram that knocked over Longley. Tom Allen, the current Democratic member of Congress from Southern Maine, was a popular former Portland mayor who ran an aggressive, expensive campaign against an incumbent who was, unusually, not terribly popular.

The one upset lambs can baa about is when Republican David Emery edged Kyros. But this occurred because shortly before the election Kyros wrapped his car around a tree in circumstance that created a scandal. "Emery was a protest vote," says pollster Potholm. "Twenty percent of the Democrats who voted for him didn't even know who he was."

In any case, in Maine there are no instances of success with a sacrificial-lamb strategy of losing to an entrenched incumbent and winning high office later. The few candidates who have lost an election and then come back to win a high office -- such as Susan Collins, who lost as the Republican candidate for governor in 1994, and George Mitchell, who lost as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1976, both of whom went on to become US senators -- were never lambs. They were serious, well-funded, competitive candidates in an open race.

The typical results in a lamb's race are the following:

--In 1984 Elizabeth Mitchell, a Democrat, got 26 percent of the vote against Sen. Cohen.

--In 1988 Jasper Wyman, a Republican, got 19 percent of the vote against Mitchell (setting a low-ball record in Maine for US Senate races).

--In 1996, Paul Young, a Republican, got 25 percent against Democratic Second District congressman John Baldacci.

--In the 1998 race for governor, the Democratic nominee, Tom Connolly, and the Republican nominee, James Longley Jr., led themselves to slaughter against King. Longley got 19 percent and Connolly 12 percent. King won with 58 percent. (The Green Party's Patricia LaMarche obtained 7 percent and Taxpayers Party candidate William Clarke 4 percent.)

In each of these races the speculation was that, while these challengers were not given a chance to win, they might be trying to set themselves up for a future run for office. But none of the losers has had subsequent higher-office electoral success or is considered a possible future winner.

"I'd be stunned if he got close to 35 or 40 percent," Potholm says of Lawrence.

WHAT DOES HE SAY TO HIS CONTRIBUTORS?

Asked about why he is running, Lawrence says "it comes down to a question of values," then wanders off talking about his grandfather being a carpenter in Ft. Kent who lost everything in the Depression and his father making $24 a week at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. Lawrence grew up in Kittery, went to Bowdoin (where he was taught by Potholm) and the University of Maine Law School, was in private practice for eight years, and has served 12 years in the Maine House and Senate, the last four as Senate president. He now lives in South Berwick with his wife.

Brought back to the topic, he mentions wanting to "reinvest in the next generation." The party did not drag him into running, he claims, and no job has been promised him if he loses. He did a poll when he started running last year but doesn't plan to do any more: "I don't need to do polls to tell me I'm behind."

There is no surer indication that a Senate candidate is not serious than his decision not to do polls. Yet while admitting Snowe's strengths he says she is vulnerable. "Mainers are looking for someone who is a bold leader," he declares.

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Lance Tapley can be reached at ltapley@ctel.net.
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