BRUNSWICK, Maine — Former independent Gov. Angus King made his run for the U.S. Senate official Monday, branding his candidacy as one that will shake up the established parties in Washington and perhaps lead to the end of a gridlocked Congress he called “broken.”
“If you like the system as it is, I’m not your guy,” said King to a packed assembly in Bowdoin’s Moulton Union, where there were nearly as many people standing as there were sitting. “If you want a shot at changing it, join me.”
After delivering a talk on the Cuban missile crisis that was scheduled before the sudden announcement last week from Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe that she will retire from the Senate at the end of the year, King gave Snowe a nod of gratitude. Snowe said last week that a major factor in her decision to retire after 33 years of public service was political gridlock in Washington.
“It’s about politics and getting ready for the next election,” said King. “The best [Congress] could do was drive out an extraordinary woman from Maine.”
King said he knows that as a single member of the Senate, he can’t change Congress alone, but hoped Maine people would elect him and send a message to voters in other states that politically independent voices in Washington are the solution. He said problems can’t be fixed if the institutions in place to fix them are themselves broken.
“That doesn’t have to be the way it is. … I can be a broker for common sense. I can speak from the middle,” said King.
King said the problems facing the country are huge and daunting, ranging from the national debt to crumbling transportation and communications infrastructure. Some of the problems facing the country are felt more acutely here in Maine, said King, including a over-reliance on foreign oil.
“Everything we have … is built on the premise of fossil fuel,” said King, a long proponent of alternative energy sources, particularly wind power. “We still are trying to struggle along the same way and it’s going to kill us, particularly in Maine.”
King is not the first independent to enter the race, but he is by far the biggest name and his announcement Monday dramatically reshapes the race for whomever the Republican and Democratic nominee turns out to be.
There had been speculation that independent Eliot Cutler may also join the race, but Cutler quelled that Monday morning by throwing his support behind King.
“I have had several long conversations with Angus King during the past week, and I hope that he will run for the U.S. Senate,” Cutler said in a statement posted on Facebook. “He would bring to the Senate the independence, the abilities, the reputation and the disposition that will make him a great Senator, that will serve us Mainers well and make us proud every day, and that will begin to rebuild and restore the Senate to what it was intended to be, the world’s greatest deliberative body.
“I hope that each and every one of you will join me in encouraging Angus to run and that you will join me in supporting him if he decides to do so.”
Members of academia weighed in on what an independent senator would be able to accomplish in Congress.
“The logic of why King is announcing now is fascinating,” said L. Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College.
But does that make King the front-runner?
“I think it depends on how it shakes out on the two party sides,” Maisel said. “With him in, it becomes a very difficult race for a Republican or Democrat.”
At the moment, the Senate field is crowded but likely will settle by March 15, the deadline for signatures collected by party candidates to be submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office.
On the Democrats’ side, the leading candidates are U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who appears likely to forgo re-election to her U.S. House seat representing Maine’s 1st Congressional District; and two-term governor and former U.S. House member John Baldacci. Neither has announced definitively that they are in the race but both are gathering signatures.
Former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and state Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Portland, are in the race as well, although Dill plans to run for the House if Pingree leaves that race.
On the Republicans’ side, a number of candidates have started gathering signatures, including Secretary of State and former U.S. House candidate Charlie Summers, State Treasurer and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Bruce Poliquin, Maine Attorney General William Schneider, former state Senate President Rick Bennett, and Assistant Maine Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman.
Scott D’Amboise also is in the race. He planned to challenge Snowe in the primary but has been largely overlooked by the GOP establishment.
While party candidates are scrambling to gather 2,000 signatures before the March 15 deadline, King has more time. Independents must gather 4,000 signatures to get on the ballot for a U.S. Senate race but they have until June.
Maisel said King’s entering the race hurts a Democratic candidate more than a Republican.
“If King’s not in and Pingree’s the [Democratic] nominee, she probably doesn’t lose,” he said. “A Republican could more easily win the seat with King in.”
A Public Policy Polling survey conducted over the weekend showed 62 percent of those polled thought favorably of King while 24 percent viewed him unfavorably. In a hypothetical three-way race among King, Summers and Pingree, King received 35 percent of Democratic votes, 25 percent of GOP votes and 53 percent of independent votes.
The full PPP poll on Maine’s now wide-open Senate race is expected to be released on Tuesday.
King, who turns 68 at the end of the month and was Maine’s governor from 1995 to 2003, is the oldest candidate to explore a run. In November 1994, he narrowly won a three-way race against Republican Susan Collins, now a U.S. senator, and Democrat Joe Brennan of Portland, who had already served two terms as Maine’s governor from 1979 to 1987.
In 1998, King won re-election with 59 percent of the vote. Republican Jim Longley Jr., son of former Maine governor Jim Longley, received 19 percent and Democrat Tom Connolly received 12 percent.
During his re-election, King won broad support from Democrats and Republicans who found him more favorable than the party candidates.
He is perhaps best known for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, a then-unprecedented idea to provide middle school students in Maine with laptop computers. And of course, his independent politics.
“Nobody will be able to tell me how to vote except the people of Maine,” he said Monday night. “I think that’s the way it should be.”