The news that Sen. Olympia Snowe may face not just one but two opponents in her quest to carry the GOP banner in next year’s senate race has already aroused interest. The unfolding drama is of historic proportions: the campaign will mark the first time in 40-years that a sitting incumbent Maine senator will face an intra-party challenge. It’s thus a fitting occasion to take a glimpse at the last time this happened:

Robert Monks v. Margaret Chase Smith in 1972

Robert Monks was a Boston Brahmin, a Ted Kennedy classmate who had achieved much in his 38-years. The 74-year old Margaret Chase Smith’s Skowhegan roots were those that had often been discounted and sometimes sneered at by those from the privileged world Monks represented.

There was one thing Smith and Monks did share in common: a fascination for risk taking adventure. She in the 1920s was enthralled with taking nose dives in an airplane piloted by a companion with whom she was once romantically linked. At a comparable age in his life Monks was rolling the dice on volatile high stakes business ventures.

Smith, who had endured three hip operations in as many years and who suffered from failing eyesight, likely would have forsaken a run for a fifth senate term had it not been for the prospect of backing down from a fight with the recently transplanted Massachusetts millionaire. It wasn’t in her nature to flee from such a venture.

Monks, who had just a few years before been the Finance Chair of the Massachusetts GOP, was a masterful fundraiser who raised nearly $500,000 in the campaign, outspending the more frugal Smith by some 75 to 1. A full time staff of 25 working out of field offices throughout the state and computers were among the trappings of the Monks crusade in this, the most expensive political campaign to date in Maine history.

Job development and environmental protection were among Monks’s themes. Though Monks himself tried to avoid personal attacks on Smith, his supporters would try to draw attention to the frailties of age that might be deemed to diminish her continued efficacy and the alleged perception that she had “lost touch” with voters. (Unlike the themes anticipated in next year’s senate primary, political ideology was not a major player in the 1972 race.)

The primary seemed to rekindle Smith’s abilities in a domain for which she had long been an adroit practitioner. Her great personal charm, a capacity for recognizing names and places and the gratitude of many a constituent for services performed and promises delivered remained largely intact. Her campaign was conducted in what she stressed was “the Maine way,” a foil for a Monks political machine that seemed too artificially efficient for the more home-cooked appetite of GOP primary voters in 1972. And by a 2-to-1 margin they maintained their allegiance to her.

It would, however, be her last political success. For in the general election, one that included not only Republicans but also Democrats and Independents, four- term Congressman Bill Hathaway, who had a low key but effective chemistry with the electorate, would win 53 percent of the vote in unseating the venerable icon.

Gone from Maine for most of the next decade as a visiting professor at a number of higher educational institutions, Smith would, by the early 1980s, resettle to Skowhegan and help establish under the aegis of Northwood University the Margaret Chase Smith Library, a facility that continues to attract thousands of students of all ages annually, even some 15 years after her death.

Monks would seek to win the hearts and minds of Maine people in two more U.S. Senate elections, the first against another Maine deity, Edmund Muskie in l976 and finally in the 1996 three way GOP primary won by Susan Collins. Though Monks lost all these races, he nevertheless along the way became a major force in Maine and elsewhere.

It was Monks, for example, who in 1972 personally recruited a 31-year-old trial attorney named Bill Cohen, then serving as his city’s parttime mayor, to run for Congress. Without Monks, then, it’s unlikely the Bangor native would ever have sailed south of the Penobscot let alone lead the most powerful government agency in the Western Hemisphere.

Monks was tapped by Gov.Curtis to head a state energy commission convened to cope with the 1973-74 energy crisis and was named to chair GOP State Committee in l977-78. He would win acclaim in an appointive position even while not personally winning votes for popularly elective ones. In heading up the State GOP, for example, Monks helped the party win back enough seats in the legislature so that it could name a majority of the state’s constitutional officers. No state Republican party leader would repeat this accomplishment until Charlie Webster did so last November.

In the l970s, Monks not only helped finance campaigns but also the revitalization for much of Maine’s most distinctive urban neighborhood, Portland’s Old Port District.

By the l980s, Monks was off to the U.S. Department of Labor for a year as the nation’s pensions administrator. It was a position that would further stimulate his interest in promoting a greater sensitivity of the nation’s corporations to the interests of both pension fund as well as small investors. He became a nationally recognized leader in the shareholder activist movement, a career just barely interrupted by his last run for the senate in 1996.

The Monks-Smith senate primary of 1972 was thus not just one to recall for its immediate outcome but also as a reminder that in the forthcoming Senate Maine primary much might well be heard from both the victor and the vanquished long after it concludes. Such also is a characteristics of some – though by no means all – of Maine’s other primary campaigns involving incumbent senators, a subject of a future column.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]


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