U.S. Senate field finalized and, as expected, the race wide open

Posted March 15, 2012, at 12:17 p.m.
Last modified March 16, 2012, at 11:39 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The field of candidates is set for the U.S. Senate race and it could fill one side of a football huddle.

Six Republicans and four Democrats have said they have gathered the necessary signatures, setting up June primaries on both sides. The deadline for turning in at least 2,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office was 5 p.m. Thursday.

Independent Angus King, former two-term governor of Maine, also is in the race, although because he’s not a major party candidate, King does not have to submit his signatures until June.

When U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe shocked the political world late last month by announcing she would retire rather than seek a fourth term, many assumed the race would turn into a free for all.

And it has.

The Republican field features many of the biggest names in Maine politics, including three current constitutional officers: Secretary of State Charlie Summers, Attorney General William Schneider and Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.

Also in the mix are Rick Bennett, former Maine Senate president and current national Republican committeeman for Maine; Debra Plowman, the assistant Senate majority leader, and Scott D’Amboise, a small-business man from Lisbon Falls who already had planned on challenging Snowe.

The Democratic side is marked more by who is not in the race.

Both sitting U.S. House members — Chellie Pingree in the 1st District and Mike Michaud in the 2nd — briefly considered running for the Senate but ended up deciding to defend their congressional seats. Former Gov. John Baldacci also announced on Wednesday that he would not run, even though he was strongly considering getting in the race and signatures were gathered on his behalf.

That leaves former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, State Rep. Jon Hinck and Portland home builder Benjamin Pollard on the Democrats’ side.

Many pundits are giving King the early edge because he’s well liked, because he has served as governor during an economically vibrant time and because the field of major party candidates is seen as weak by comparison.

“He’s clearly the front-runner, but you can’t call any nonincumbent inevitable,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “I think think we’ve already seen the Republicans go after him, but I’m not sure what the Democrats will do.”

Asked whether King scared off most of the big name Democrats, Brewer said that was probably the case for Pingree and Baldacci but less so for Michaud.

Some feel that in the absence of a strong Democrat, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee could end up backing King knowing he likely will caucus to them once he reached Washington, D.C.

“He’s going to have to caucus with somebody,” Brewer said. “He can’t be a caucus of one.”

Democrats cautioned against calling the race for King.

“Polling and political analysts don’t determine the outcome of elections, voters do,” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said. “What’s important now is to focus on the issues and where the candidates stand.”

Ruth Summers, vice chairwoman of the Maine Republican Party and wife of Charlie Summers, said Snowe’s decision ultimately motivated her party.

“Once people decided to run it compressed what is normally accomplished over a period of many months into days but did not deter anyone in the slightest,” she said in a statement from the Republican Party, which touted the GOP’s enthusiasm and motivation. “The campaign mechanisms materialized, volunteers stepped forward, and literally thousands of signatures were collected by going door to door from Kittery to Fort Kent and from Lubec to Moose River.”

A poll conducted March 2-4 by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling provided an early glimpse of a potential race.

For Republicans, former gubernatorial candidate and longtime party elder Peter Cianchette received the most support with 21 percent, but he decided not to run.

Among the six who submitted signatures, Summers had the most support at 18 percent, followed D’Amboise (10 percent), Bennett (9 percent) and Poliquin (8 percent).

Plowman received 4-percent support, while Schneider, who some view as the early GOP front-runner, got only 1-percent support in the PPP poll.

“I’m surprised that all three constitutional officers put their papers in,” Brewer said. “I guess a little competition is good for the party because none of these candidates are terribly well known and they all need to build name recognition.

“Summers and Schneider are the top candidates at this point, but a lot can happen.”

The Democratic-leaning PPP poll also put King ahead of any Democrat or Republican.

There have been questions about whether Summers, Schneider and Poliquin — who each have important positions in state government — will step down temporarily during their respective campaigns.

Megan Sanborn, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said Summers does not plan to resign or take a leave of absence.

“His responsibilities are not limited to elections and he intends to keep those responsibilities,” she said. “The elections staff was not appointed by him and he has stayed out of [the signature certification process].”

Shortly after Sanborn spoke, a press release was sent out with Summers’ name on it urging Mainers to vote in the June primary, an election that will see him on the ballot.

It’s not immediately clear if Schneider or Poliquin have plans to resign or take leaves from their posts. Asked the question on Thursday at the State House, Poliquin said he couldn’t talk about the Senate race during business hours.

Also due Thursday were signatures to get on the ballot for Maine’s two U.S. House races. All signatures must still be reviewed and certified by the Secretary of State’s Office.

In the 1st Congressional District, the incumbent Pingree has submitted her signatures, as has Republican Jonathan Courtney, the Maine Senate majority leader and Patrick Calder, a marine engineer from Portland.

In the 2nd District, Michaud, who has held the seat for five terms, has turned in signatures, along with Senate President Kevin Raye and Blaine Richardson of Belfast, both Republicans.

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