- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2012

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Many voters here, echoing sentiments expressed around the country, think Washington has been broken by extreme left- and right-wing partisanship. But unlike in the rest of the country, one man is riding high in the polls here by claiming that he’s got just the medicine to fix it.

“I’m non-ideological,” said Angus King, the former two-term governor of Maine who served as an independent and enjoys a sizable lead over the Republican and Democratic candidates in the race for the state’s open Senate seat.

Mr. King told The Washington Times in an interview that his goal is to come to Washington without boosting either party but instead to push for good ideas. The opportunity to do just that came earlier this year when Maine’s longtime Republican moderate, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, shocked voters by announcing she would retire, citing political “polarization” in Washington as a main reason.

“She said that, basically, ‘The system wasn’t working, and I’ve had it; I can’t get anything done,’” Mr. King said. “That provoked me to do this because I think the country’s in real trouble and I think a major contributor to the trouble is gridlock.”

“As an independent with a record as a governor, I’m in kind of a unique position in the country to be able to take a stab at doing this in a different way,” he said.

Maine Secretary of State Charles E. Summers, the Republican in the race, has made some gains in recent polls. But Mr. King has led from the get-go and the most recent Real Clear Politics average of polls puts him 15 points in front of Mr. Summers, with Democrat state Sen. Cynthia A. Dill an even more distant third.

A King victory would fit New England’s trend of bucking the two-party system. Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — who also is retiring — and Bernard Sanders of Vermont are both independents.

But both of them caucus with the Democrats, helping give the party effective majority control in the chamber and making Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, the majority leader and agenda-setter.

Mr. King, though, refuses to say which party he’d caucus with — and indeed, he says he’d like to try to stay outside the two party caucuses, if possible.

“If I can be on a committee and be an effective senator without it, that would be my preference,” he said.

Either way, he said to announce a caucus now would mean “I wouldn’t have any bargaining power.”

Some say his answer is obvious — he’s a pro-green-energy businessman who openly endorses President Obama for a second term.

He counters that he didn’t govern as a Democrat, saying that “85 to 90 percent of the bills I vetoed were Democratic bills.”

“I vetoed a minimum-wage bill,” Mr. King said, “and it drove the Democrats absolutely crazy, but I did because the data I saw said it wouldn’t help that many people and it might actually hurt us in terms of recruiting employers.”

The question is whether he can survive in Washington without backing one side or the other.

“You have to choose with whom you are going to caucus in order to secure committee assignments,” said Sen. Susan M. Collins, the Republican who holds Maine’s other Senate seat. “It’s just not realistic to go to Washington and say that you’re not going to caucus with either side.”

Mrs. Snowe declined to comment. But her spokesman, Chris Averill, said the retiring senator “believes people have a right to know” with whom Mr. King would caucus.

Centrist caucus

Mr. King said he would like to see the creation of a “centrist caucus,” not separate from the two parties, but like the geographic and issues-based caucuses on Capitol Hill, such as those representing Western states or rural interests.

He also intends to use his independence to try to force the debate in his direction.

“If you look at the Senate and the history of the recent years, four or five votes or six votes can be significant,” he said. “One vote can be significant.”

On many issues, he seems to straddle both parties.

He declined to comment on whether he advocates stiffer cuts to defense than those called for by the Obama administration but said there do need to be cuts.

“There are monies to be saved in defense by closing overseas bases,” he said. “I don’t understand why we have thousands of people in Germany and in Japan.”

On health care, he’s against repealing the president’s new national health law.

On energy, he thinks “getting off oil is a national imperative.” He supports natural gas “big-time,” but also believes strongly in government subsidies for research and development on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

On federal spending, Mr. King is decidedly down the middle, though at times he sounds like the most conservative of budget hawks: “The debt is a terrible problem, and it’s a national security issue,” he said. “We are literally spending our children’s money. Literally!”

But he also recalls a Maine voter who told him the George W. Bush-era tax cuts were not really tax cuts.

“When you cut taxes and don’t cut expenditures and borrow the difference, all you’re really doing is shifting that tax to your children and grandchildren because they’re going to have to pay for the borrowing,” Mr. King said. “I’d never thought about it that way, but that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

The smart thing is to keep one’s vote secret as long as possible, said Mr. King, who keeps a picture of former Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith on the wall of his campaign headquarters.

Mrs. Smith, a Republican, was Maine’s senator from 1949 through 1973, but her votes were notoriously unpredictable. She advocated using nuclear weapons against the communist Soviet Union, but she also was the first lawmaker in Congress to stand against the domestic anti-communist campaign of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

“She was famous for not telling people how she was going to vote until she got to the ‘S’ in the alphabet” on the Senate roll call, Mr. King said, “and it gave her a lot of power.”