WASHINGTON -- Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has to strike a delicate balance as she seeks a fourth term, courting the right to ward off a more conservative primary challenger while trying to stay viable for the general election.
In seeking to avoid a primary, one of Snowe's biggest coups was securing the endorsement of Gov. Paul LePage (R), who was elected last year with the strong backing of the state's Tea Party movement. But given LePage's recent series of clashes with the state's labor groups, some labor interests worry that Snowe, who has long taken a moderate view of labor issues, may start to shift her positions rightward.
Snowe is known as one of the Senate's key bellwethers and one of its most moderate Republicans, but moderate Republicans suffered some surprising defeats in last year's Senate primaries. After watching centrists like longtime Delaware Rep. Mike Castle fall to Tea Party-backed candidates like Christine O'Donnell -- while those who tacked right, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), won another term -- Snowe may well have considered adopting a harder line.
When LePage endorsed Snowe in December, he stressed that their relationship "transcends politics." He has been a longtime friend of her late husband, Peter Snowe, who while a state legislator helped LePage get back on his feet after LePage ran away from his abusive father at the age of 11.
That connection is likely to help Snowe secure the Republican nomination, but could also backfire in the general election. A new survey from Public Policy Polling finds that LePage has an approval rating of 48 percent in the state and remains a highly polarizing figure: 77 percent of Republicans support the work he's doing, whereas 80 percent of Democrats disapprove.
And some of his most polarizing moves have been in regard to the labor community. He has pushed for a higher retirement age for public employees, "right to work" legislation that would allow union members to stop paying dues and, most recently, ordered the removal of a labor mural at a state agency. On Friday, hundreds of Mainers reportedly protested the mural decision at the state Labor Department office.
Since 1989, Snowe has received nearly $260,000 from labor groups' political action committees and individual donations. Between 2003 and '04, she received $10,000 from the Service Employees International Union Committee on Political Education.
While those aren't enormous sums for a three-term senator and frequent swing vote, Snowe has generally had fairly good relations with the labor community. Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said Snowe is a "very strong advocate" for labor interests on fair trade and global economic issues, as well as in areas involving working women and low-income families, although her focus tends to be on small businesses.
"On issues where there is a conflict or a strong difference of opinion between the business community and labor or working people, she tends not to be as supportive on those divisive kinds of issues," Schlobohm said. "Although she's always very thoughtful on them -- considerate, open-minded."
Snowe's office did not return a request for comment for this report.
Like most of Maine's federal congressional delegation, she has also remained silent on the mural controversy, and Democrats have been quick to press the issue.
"Senator Olympia Snowe should have the courage to stand up and do the right thing," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said. "By kowtowing to the Tea Party, she is putting her own reelection ahead of principles."
By contrast, Schlobohm of the Maine AFL-CIO said, "I don't think we would have an expectation necessarily that any of the congressional delegation would delve too deeply into these [state labor] issues." But he said that if Snowe were tacking rightward more generally, that would be "troubling."
The governor is already receiving some heat in Maine for his decision to take down the mural, which depicts scenes from the state's labor history. The Portland Press Herald called it "insulting" and "absurd."
"LePage is a savvy politician, and like every inflammatory statement he has made, this decision will play well with his base of supporters," wrote The Portland Press Herald. "But it's not going to gain him any trust from his opponents, which is essential to achieving a political compromise."
Playing to the base is not usually Snowe's style. She has often advocated broadening the makeup of the Republican Party. But in December, Mike Tipping, a spokesman for the progressive Maine People's Alliance, wrote that he noticed a rightward shift by Snowe, citing her opposition to the Dream Act and support for extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans.
Snowe supported the original 2001 tax cuts but opposed them a couple of years later, arguing they weren't sufficiently paid for.