OAKLAND, Maine -- The defeat of an establishment Republican by a conservative firebrand for the party's nomination for Maine's open congressional seat brought traditional moderate New England Republicans one step closer to extinction in a region that they once dominated.
Tuesday's primary pitted Kevin Raye, a former chief of staff to longtime centrist Sen. Olympia Snowe, against tea party candidate Bruce Poliquin. Throughout the combative primary, Poliquin framed his opponent as a liberal who would be willing to compromise GOP values and attacked his stance on abortion rights. Raye ran on his willingness to work with Democrats and mend the divisions in Congress.
That approach fell short for Raye, the latest moderate Republican to lose his bid for office in the region. Known for being fiscally conservative and socially tolerant, traditional New England Republicans who held a stronghold in the region for generations have slowly disappeared from public office in recent years while the party nationally has shifted further right.
Raye warned Tuesday night that Poliquin's win would make it more difficult for the GOP to reclaim the district, the Portland Press Herald reported, but that it continued that trend of losses for the party's establishment wing.
"It says something about the direction of the Republican Party," he told supporters.
Just two Republicans left are among New England's 33-member congressional delegation: Maine Sen. Susan Collins and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who won with tea party support in 2010, is the only remaining Republican New England governor.
In Vermont, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is the only statewide Republican officeholder, and no establishment Republican has signed up to challenge Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in November. Both houses of the Legislature are overwhelmingly Democratic.
Connecticut Senate candidate Christopher Shays, who campaigned in 2012 on the need to revive the moderate New England Republican, was defeated by his primary opponent, who later lost to a Democrat in the general election.
Poliquin benefited Tuesday from low turnout, which can give extra weight to fiercely ideological voters. His victory in the vast, rural 2nd District shows that the GOP's shift toward the right that has been seen across the nation is also true in New England, particularly Maine, political observers said.
"That just confirms what Paul LePage's success in that part of the state indicated, which is that Maine is not immune to the sort of tea party-spirited, rightward shift that has been going on in this country," said Brian Duff, a political science professor at the University of New England.
Still, moderate Republicans remain powerful in the Maine Legislature and Collins, a centrist, has been popular enough to avoid any serious primary challengers as she runs for re-election this fall.
Maine Republicans are hopeful they can take back the 2nd Congressional District seat, which Democrats have held for two decades. Poliquin faces a tough battle against Democratic nominee Emily Cain, a state senator who framed herself as a consensus builder.
On a campaign stop in Oakland on Wednesday, Poliquin signaled that his focus for the general election will be on the economy. A former state treasurer, he said that the need for jobs -- in a district hit hard by the recession -- is something that Democrats, Republicans and independents can all agree on.
"They don't want someone to go down to Washington and be part of the mess," he said. "They want someone to fix it."