Maine has made headlines as far away as California this year for playing host to one of the nation's most convoluted and unique U.S. Senate races — a three-way contest defined as much by the blurring of party lines as the seemingly endless flow of cash into the state from outside sources seeking to manipulate the outcome.
Groups such as Crossroads GPS, the super PAC co-founded by Republican operative Karl Rove, and Americans Elect, the nonprofit turned super PAC doling out money from independent New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have literally spent millions on TV ads in Maine.
However, if third-party candidate Angus King wins on Tuesday — and polling suggests the former two-term independent governor will prevail — political analysts say much of the credit belongs to the state's Democratic Party.
Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe's surprise retirement announcement early this year triggered an initial scramble among would-be successors, but "once it was clear that King was in the race, the Democrats cleared the field," says John Baughman, a professor of politics at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
"The top Democrats in the state who might have considered a run, like [U.S. Rep.] Chellie Pingree, made it clear within days that they were not going to enter the race."
The Democrats' reluctance had a lot to do with the reputation enjoyed by Mr. King, who left the governor's office in 2003 with high approval ratings and still has widespread name-recognition in the state of just 1.3 million people.
And for Democrats, it didn't help that Maine is a place teetering on the edge of tea party dominance — to the extent that any candidate to the left of Mr. King's notoriously amorphous brand of politics was likely to face long odds.
"The bottom line is that the Democrats didn't want a replay of 2010," said Mr. Baughman.
That year, current Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican and outspoken tea party supporter, squeaked out a surprise victory with just 38 percent of the vote against independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell.
"There's still this sting from the governor's race in 2010 when Eliot Cutler basically got so close to winning as an independent and the Democrats stood behind Libby Mitchell," said Michael Franz, who teaches government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.
"If just a hair of those voters had stood behind Cutler, then we wouldn't have such a polarizing governor in Maine right now with LePage," he said. "Democrats don't want to make that mistake again, and so they've put their hopes of the Senate on Angus King.
"There's no denying it," added Mr. Franz, who noted that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) burned through roughly a half-million dollars on TV ads in the state despite remaining outwardly unsupportive of the Democratic candidate in the race, state Sen. Cynthia Dill.
Charlie Summers, the Republican who's running ahead of Mrs. Dill but still 17 points behind Mr. King in recent polls, was portrayed as an "extremist" in at least one DSCC-backed ad in September — an apparent attempt to link him ideologically to Mr. LePage and the tea party.
"It's silly unless [the Democrats] hope that the independent wins," said Mr. Franz, adding that the DSCC money might have been better spent in a state where the party actually had a chance of victory, such as Virginia or Massachusetts.
That it was spent in Maine seems to suggest the Democrats are attempting buy Mr. King's allegiance.
It's a risky gamble, since Mr. King remains steadfast in his refusal to say which party he intends to caucus with if he wins.
"What's interesting for Democratic voters is that the Democratic Party may help elect Angus King, but he still may caucus with the Republicans" if the GOP wins back control of the Senate, said Mr. Franz. "That would be a cosmic payback of sorts for the Democrats making this bet."
The DSCC, meanwhile, isn't the only outside group looking to help Mr. King: A group called Americans Elect has pumped more than $1.7 million into television ads supporting the independent.
Americans Elect, which formed in 2011 as a nonprofit seeking to create an Internet platform for third-party presidential candidates, has evolved into a super PAC. Among its biggest donors is Mr. Bloomberg, the one-time Democrat, turned Republican, and now independent mayor of New York City.
Mr. Bloomberg recently cut a check for $500,000 to go toward the group's $1.7 million ad buy supporting Mr. King.
The effort runs counter to funds being pumped into the race by Mr. Rove's group, Crossroads GPS, which last week announced that it would spend $335,000 before Tuesday on an ad attacking Mr. King. In total, the group has spent nearly $1 million on such ads in Maine.
The catch, according to some observers, may be that no amount of money from outside will change the current trend, in which Maine voters — whether in the governor's race two years ago or in the current contest for Mrs. Snowe's Senate seat — appear to prefer candidates who don't fit squarely into the major political parties' round holes.
"I've lived a lot of places, and Maine is the only place I've lived where voters seem to view independent candidates as consistently viable candidates for governance," said Ronald Schmidt, who teaches political science at the University of Southern Maine. The state also had an independent governor from 1975 to 1979, James B. Longley, who campaigned on a pledge to serve just a single term.
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