Mitt Romney broke his losing streak tonight, narrowly edging out Ron Paul to win Maine’s nonbinding caucus.
Romney received 39 percent of the vote in what was said to be a record caucus turnout, state party chair Charlie Webster announced a few minutes ago. Paul finished a strong second with 36 percent. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich placed a distant third and fourth with 18 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
Romney’s victory dashed the Paul campaign’s hopes of winning their first state contest. Romney also handily won in neighboring New Hampshire and is expected to do well in other New England states, where Republican temperament remains more moderate than in many other regions of the country. Earlier in the day, Romney also won a straw poll of Republican insiders at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The caucuses in Maine—population 1.3 million—are usually given scant attention by presidential candidates and the national media alike. But with the Republican nomination unsettled, Romney and Paul both built organization and made campaign appearances and media buys here. Romney spent last night in Portland, the hub of the state’s most populous and affluent region, where he held a rally at a waterfront boat yard. Paul, who spent two days here at the end of January, flew in from Texas this morning to attend caucuses in southern Maine.
“All of a sudden our routine, low-key caucus process over several weeks turned into a sprint to the finish,” says former Republican state senator Phil Harriman, a political commentator on Portland television and radio stations. “With Rick Santorum’s success last week, Romney strategically needed to win Maine.”
Neither Santorum nor Gingrich has visited the Pine Tree State. Gingrich, who has shown limited appeal outside the Deep South, never had much traction here. Although Santorum had the promise of attracting support from the Christian right and other social conservatives in rural Maine, he made no effort to build an organization here, a step critical to success in caucus states.
Technically, the state’s caucuses are not even over. Spread out over several weeks, some communities have yet to convene, and Washington County—the easternmost in the U.S.—had its caucus snowed out today and has rescheduled for Feb. 18. Nor are the results of the votes binding. Under the Maine party’s rules, the state’s 24 delegates can ignore caucus results and pledge themselves to whomever they please at the national convention. A suggestion that this system be reformed was dismissed out of hand by its rules committee in 2010.
Despite these idiosyncrasies, Romney and Paul felt they could not ignore the state this time around. “These aren’t normal circumstances,” says University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer. “I think every delegate is going to count.” And with the next nomination contest 17 days away, the results here can be counted on the media’s narrative of the state of the race.
This year’s vote was also a symbolic contest over the future of the Maine GOP, one of the country’s last remaining habitats for the endangered “Northeast” or “Teddy Roosevelt” strain of Republicanism: fiscally conservative, environmentally conscious, and liberal or ambivalent on social issues. Once the dominant force in the GOP, this Yankee camp has been in rapid retreat since the Dixie takeover of the national party in the aftermath of the civil-rights, counterculture, and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Maine, home of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, is one of the old school’s final redoubts, and Romney is their favored candidate. (He trounced Paul and John McCain in the 2008 caucus.)
But over the past two years, moderates have been losing control of the state party to Tea Party insurgents, who rewrote the platform (pledging to stop “efforts to create a one-world government), put the divisive salvage store manager Paul LePage in the governor’s mansion, and seized control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in decades. “The Paul troops I’ve seen in eastern Maine are the Tea Party and LePage supporters,” says libertarian economist and former GOP congressional nominee Jon Reisman of the University of Maine in Machias. “They’ve never warmed to Romney and were sometimes hostile to him.”
“The big question is if the right wing of the party has really gotten bigger or if it’s just more organized,” says Ron Schmidt, chair of the political science department at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. “The results announced today suggest the moderates still have the upper hand, but not by much.