No one can afford to lose the race for Olympia Snowe’s Senate seat. No one.
The Republican Party is desperate to retake the United States Senate, and that is a task that becomes much harder if Maine falls into non-Republican hands. If President Obama is re-elected in November, the GOP will need both houses of Congress if it is going to move from being dissenters to driving policy. Republicans simply can’t lose.
The Democratic Party has been salivating at the chance to run for this seat in a competitive way ever since Snowe captured it. With her electoral appeal, Dems have not had a chance to field a strong candidate in 18 years. Their strongest options — Pingree and Michaud — may have taken a pass, but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up. They haven’t. Democrats do not trust Angus King any more than Republicans. They simply can’t lose.
And Angus King himself now has the hopes of an entire anti-partisan movement pinned to his success. If this reasonable, well-liked man with an epic mustache can’t get elected in the most independent-minded state in the union, than surely there is no hope for politics in this country.
The importance of this race is not only true of local state parties and organizations, but nationally as well. Maine is a phenomenally cheap date when it comes to media buying, and when you couple that with how important the seat is to everyone across the country, we can expect political advocacy to overwhelm the state this year.
And that is not good news for Mr. King.
The conventional wisdom has already formed that he is not only the early front-runner, but that he is virtually unstoppable now that Chellie Pingree has taken a pass. Well, he may be the front-runner, but he is certainly not unstoppable.
Angus King was a blank slate — a mirror for all of us — in 1994 when he was elected governor with a relatively meager 35.37 percent of the vote. Interestingly, there wasn’t a group called “the 64 percenters” out there biting at King’s ankles in his first term. But I digress.
No one really knew who King was in that election, opposition researchers didn’t have a long career in government to pour over or a lot of dirt to dig up, so he was able to capture the hopes and dreams of reasonable, pragmatic voters and convince them he was one of them. Barely.
King ran for re-election in 1998, and faced no real competition. It was the height of the 1990s economy, King was popular, times were good and no one thought they could beat him so no one tried. The result was an election campaign on cruise control in which his closest competition — Republican Jim Longley, Jr. — received 18.93 percent of the vote.
Angus King never has been significantly challenged. Not like he is about to be.
As the front-runner, King is going to be on the receiving end of most of those national and state attacks. Democratic groups are going to be out to kill King, and will likely dig up a lot of dirt on him to make him unpalatable to progressive Democrats.
There is certainly plenty there — King’s environmental positioning over the years will be troubling, for instance. He has been pro-clear cutting, pro-nuclear power and pro-industry wind. He also endorsed the reviled George W. Bush in 2000, opposed a hike in the minimum wage and has said plenty that will irritate the left.
Conservative groups also are going to go after King, and they have just as much dirt — probably more — to make him unacceptable to anyone on the right. Just bring up King’s laptop program in conservative circles today and you are still likely to see eyes roll. Then there is the fact that he used to be a Democrat, and the belief already present among Republicans that he would caucus with Harry Reid and friends once in Washington.
None of this means King will lose. What it means is that he is going to face a barrage of opposition research, negativity and attacks that he has simply never seen before. It will have an effect and his numbers will go down.
The question remains, will he fold like a cheap suit or will he survive? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure: this is not going to be a coronation.
Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.