- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2012

Maine Democrats are struggling to find a strong contender to challenge for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican Olympia J. Snowe, but both parties may find their picks overshadowed by the independent candidacy of popular former Gov. Angus King.

With several high-profile Democrats deciding not to run, and as Mrs. Snowe’s decision last month not to seek re-election left Republicans little time to find replacement candidates, Mr. King has emerged as the favorite in the race.

“I’ve seen some people say [Mr. King‘s] inevitable, and I wouldn’t go that far, because the Republicans have some relatively attractive people” running, University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer said.

“That being said, King’s clearly the front-runner, and whoever the nominee is … both the Democrats and Republicans are going to have a really difficult uphill slog to try to take this away from him.”

Last Thursday’s filing deadline in Maine for partisan Senate candidates passed with three key potential Democrats sitting out the race: Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, and former Gov. John Baldacci, who succeeded Mr. King.

Mr. Michaud made his decision before Mr. King announced he would get into the race, while Mrs. Pingree and Mr. Baldacci said no only after Mr. King launched his campaign. While each would’ve made a strong push to win the seat without the former governor in the race, a King candidacy would’ve significantly hurt their chances, political experts say.

“For Chellie and for all the other people who decided not to get in on this after King made his announcement, it was just sort of a cold political calculation; they looked at the numbers and said this is going to be a tough one to win,” Mr. Brewer said.

Four Democrats turned in the required 2,000 signatures by Thursday’s filing deadline to run: former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, state Rep. Jon Hinck and Benjamin Pollard.

On the Republican side, six have qualified: Secretary of State Charlie Summers, Attorney General William Schneider, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, state Sen. Debra Plowman, former Maine Senate President Richard Bennett and Scott D’Amboise.

Mr. Summers and Mr. Dunlap, boosted by their experience serving in statewide office, have the inside tracks to win their June 12 primaries, many political experts say. But the crowded GOP primary is more difficult to predict, with Mr. Schneider expected to make a strong run. Mr. Poliquin also could be a threat, though he has been dogged by an ethics violation regarding a tax issue.

But Mr. King has the early momentum, boosted by his reputation for rising above partisan fray while serving as an independent governor from 1995 to 2003 — a plus in a state with a history of moderate politics and successful independent candidacies.

“Even though he hasn’t been in office for a number of years, he continues to be viewed very positively by a lot of people in Maine, and [his candidacy] just made it very, very difficult, I think, for any of these other potential top-tier candidates to make that race,” Mr. Brewer said.

Mr. King’s candidacy could set up a scenario similar to Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial race in which independent candidate Eliot Cutler won many Democratic and independent votes while grabbing more than 36 percent of the election tally.

Mr. Cutler’s presence in the race has been credited for enabling tea party-backed Republican Paul LePage to win with only 38 percent of the vote. Democrat Libby Mitchell garnered only 19 percent.

“In regards to the identity of the [Maine Democratic Party], we’re still sort of waiting for the dust to clear,” said Ronald Schmidt Jr., a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine.

“There is a lot of anxiety here that [Democratic and independent voters] could again split the vote between a Democratic candidate and [Mr. King], resulting in a possibly a minority candidate winning the seat.”

Mrs. Snowe’s decision to retire deals a blow to the Republican Party’s push to pick up the four seats its needs to take control of the Senate. But if the GOP primary produces a strong candidate, expect the national Republican Party to pour cash into the race.

The GOP already is trying to portray Mr. King as a closet Democrat.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee — the fundraising arm of Senate Republicans — has accused Mr. King of making a secret pact to caucus with Democrats if elected in exchange for the party agreeing not to run high-profile candidates in the race.

Mr. King called the accusation “complete bunk” and a “total fabrication.”

John Baughman, a political science professor at Maine’s Bates College, said he doesn’t find the accusation credible, but added that proving it true likely wasn’t the GOP’s aim.

“That’s what [Republicans] have to do because they’d like to turn this into a race of Democrats vs. Republicans,” he said.

“They already have a little trouble against [Mr. King], but they’d have a lot of trouble if it looks like they’re running against an independent. But if they call him a Democrat and convince voters he’s a Democrat, it at least gives them an outside shot of holding the seat.”

Guessing his political leanings isn’t easy. As governor he was a fiscal conservative, but was more liberal on social and environmental issues. And while he is backing President Obama’s re-election bid, he endorsed Republican George W. Bush’s successful presidential campaign in 2000.

Mr. King has said he hasn’t decided which party he would caucus with should he win the seat, and even has suggested he wouldn’t side with either.

“He’ll hold out as long as he can before committing, but I don’t think there’s much question that in the end he’ll caucus with the Democrats,” Mr. Baughman said. “He has to choose somebody. He can’t get a good committee assignment, for example, without decision on which party you’re going to caucus with.”

Mr. Brewer speculated that Mr. King could wait to see which party has control of the Senate after the November elections before picking his team. But he agreed that remaining outside of a partisan caucus isn’t realistic.

“He can’t be a caucus of one. He’s got to caucus with somebody,” he said.