In an old log cabin on Main Street in the picturesque little town of Yarmouth, Maine, Cumberland County Tea Party members meet on Sunday afternoons to discuss their political grievances. On this Sunday in early June, a relatively small group is sitting in a circle on yellow metal chairs with vinyl seat cushions. Overlooking the gathering is a huge mounted moose head, complete with a glorious set of antlers, looking somewhat confused by the spectacle.
“I’d love to see a member of the Muslim community come and explain Sharia law to us,” says a bald man with a clipped mustache. “What makes someone come to the Great Satan and then want Sharia law? That’s my question.” A member who is involved with ACT! For America, a group that aims to educate citizens about the dangers of radical Islam, launches a diatribe against a local museum that invited an Al Jazeera employee to speak at a fundraiser. A third chimes in with a grand theory: “There’s a symbiosis between the left and Islamists. They both want big government. They’re anticapitalist and anti-West. They have a common agenda.”
Huh? It’s no wonder the moose looks confused. The stew of paranoia, conspiracy and blind irrationality is enough to make any reasonable mammal do a double-take.
In normal times, these people would be fodder either for comedy routines or earnest sociological studies. They would, above all, be subterranean. But these aren’t normal times. Angry, embittered, fearful of the lack of jobs and the ongoing flood of foreclosures, Tea Partiers across Maine were instrumental in pushing the Republican Party rightward in the midterm primaries and then pushing the state as a whole rightward this past November, when they helped elect Governor Paul LePage, a loudmouth ex-mayor of the gritty central Maine town of Waterville.
In doing so, they unleashed a firestorm. Within weeks of his inauguration, the governor had served up a smorgasbord of right-wing proposals: rollbacks of environmental regulations and welfare programs, an assault on public workers’ and women’s rights, even a campaign to remove a mural depicting the state’s labor history.
Other Tea Party governors came out swinging with similarly aggressive agendas; and like LePage, they too have rapidly engendered backlashes of varying degrees. But unlike in, say, Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker’s bare-knuckle attack on collective bargaining brought forth a massive outpouring of progressive energy, in Maine the push to counter LePage’s brand of Tea Party extremism is gaining support not only among progressives but within the Republican Party itself.
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LePage wasn’t cut from the same cloth as most Republicans in this avowedly moderate state. Temperamentally, the governor is as far from the genteel Yankee Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins as one can imagine. Both women—following in the tradition of longtime Maine legislator Margaret Chase Smith, a prominent and highly regarded Rockefeller Republican—market themselves as consensus builders, reliable bridges between increasingly polarized and partisan Congressional blocs. Over the years, this centrist stance has played well in a state that doesn’t normally tilt toward extremes. Mainers pride themselves on their common sense, and a disproportionately large part of the electorate not only registers as independent but votes for independent candidates. LePage, by contrast, is both down-the-line conservative and flamingly confrontational.