PORTLAND, Maine — Angus King, the popular former Maine governor and favorite to be the state’s next U.S. senator, is a political throwback trying to play a new game by the old rules.
He’s on Facebook and Twitter, but in an age defined by extreme political partisanship, the mustachioed, former two-term governor is boldly staking out the lonely middle ground, forswearing partisan ideology to run as a devout independent. He voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and plans to vote for President Barack Obama this year. His pitch to Maine voters is so devotedly nonpartisan that his campaign headquarters prominently displays a Robert F. Kennedy campaign poster next to a portrait of Ronald Reagan.
And all the signs are that it might work.
“I’m more convinced than when I announced that I’m on the right track,” King said. “Everywhere I go in Maine … it’s all they want to talk about. They want me to go down there and talk some sense into those people. Go down there and make it work.”
With the balance of power in the Senate so tenuously decided, King’s unwillingness to commit to one side or the other has scrambled the calculus in Washington and brought him a lot of attention.
“I’ve come to realize that an unencumbered U.S. senator is a profound threat to the whole system,” he said. “It’s somebody that they can’t put in a box and say, oh, well, we know how this guy is going to vote. That has raised the stakes, frankly.”
And the stakes were already pretty high.
On Tuesday, six Republicans and four Democrats will face off in Senate primaries for a chance to represent their party this November. But polls show the independent King with a wide lead over any of his potential challengers in the race to succeed the retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Democrats control the Senate on the strength of a slim three-seat majority, and Republicans have a good chance of picking up the four seats they need to take control of the chamber. If that happens and the GOP can also hang on to their control of the House, it would significantly alter the political landscape in Washington for a reelected President Obama or a newly elected President Romney.
If King wins in November, his decision on which party caucus to align himself with could easily be the difference in who controls the Senate.
Snowe upended the Republican takeover plans in February with her decision not to seek re-election, and her reasons for leaving the Senate converge with King’s for trying to replace her. Snowe cited “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies.”
After Snowe’s decision, King, 68, quickly jumped into the race and rocketed to the top of the polls fueled by his high name recognition, high approval ratings and anti-partisan message.
“My desire is to be as independent as I can be, as long as I can be, subject to being effective,” he said. “I’m not going just for symbolism. I want to do something.”
Snowe clearly admires King’s strategy. “I think that people have to reward those individuals who are prepared to work across the political aisle,” she said last week. “I don’t see any other way; if you don’t talk to people with whom you disagree, you’re never going to solve problems.”
The two parties have approached the King candidacy in different ways.
Republicans think he is a Democrat masquerading as an independent, while Democrats are quietly hoping that they are right. The National Republican Senatorial Committee charged in a Web video that King was “dragged” into the race by Democrats, who “shoved aside” more liberal candidates. The NRSC and outside super PACs are expected to spend millions to try to rob King of victory.
Democratic officials say privately they’re unlikely to invest too much in the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary in hopes that if, or when, King wins he will eventually support them.
King said he has never spoken to Democratic leader Harry Reid or his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell but he understands that he will eventually have to choose between them. “I don’t want to stand in the middle of the aisle and say I’m an independent and not have a committee assignment. That’s sort of self-defeating and it wouldn’t be fair to Maine. If it’s necessary to join a caucus and get a committee assignment, I’ll do it,” he said.
It will depend on the terms, however. “What does join a caucus mean? Does it mean casting one vote to organize the Senate and then you’re on your own? Or does it mean you have to truly join the caucus, go to the meetings and participate fully or you lose your committee assignments?” he said. “How the parties handle that with me is going to have a significant influence on my decision.”
And if a voter insists he needs to pick a party before November, King said, “I’ll tell them to vote for someone else.”
King is part of a long Maine and New England tradition of political moderation and independence, including such senators as Republican Margaret Chase Smith and Democrat George Mitchell and, of course, Snowe. But that tradition is under siege in the current climate, and King has not run a political campaign in the 21st century.
But King’s centrist message should have broad appeal, said Amy Fried, a political science professor at the University of Maine.
“Some claim that King was never really tested and that perhaps he could go down if he’s hit by both sides,” Fried said. “But Maine has certain elements of its political culture where I think that would be very difficult. Once a candidate gets to a certain status, where they’re generally really respected, then it’s really hard to do any negative attacks against them. Voters dislike that kind of negative activity and take it personally.”
State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, a leading GOP candidate, in an interview called King “the second Democrat in the race.” Another Republican contender, Charlie Summers, said the former governor’s insistence on neutrality shows “how detached King is from the people he wants to represent.”
Top Democratic challenger Matt Dunlap doubts King could be a Senate bridge-builder: “If President Obama couldn’t bring the two sides together, and Olympia Snowe couldn’t do it and Joe Lieberman couldn’t do it, I don’t know why Angus King can.”
Cynthia Dill, another Democrat in the race, said King is playing “mind games” with voters and conducting “a social experiment.”
King “either knows who he’s going to caucus with and he’s not telling us — in which case that’s not the kind of change we’re looking for in Washington, another politician who’s not really straight with voters — or he doesn’t know,” Dill said. “And it concerns me if he doesn’t know.”
Already King has changed positions on the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire Jan. 1. Early in his campaign he said that tax cuts for upper-income Americans should end. But now, after last month’s poor employment report, King believes that decisions on taxes and spending should be tied more closely to economic indicators instead of expiration dates. He said he supports most of the proposals from the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission and is carefully studying other issues.
But he’d much rather talk about fixing the Senate.
“If you have a series of leaks in the pipes in your house and your wrench is broken, you never get to the leaks,” he said. “Talking about this unfunctionality of Congress is not an academic exercise. It’s fundamental to then get to a place where we can get to these problems.”
As for his potential opponents, King would only offer that “they’re all nice people — I assume.”
Since his last statewide campaign in 1998, King said he’s most impressed by how social media is transforming campaigns. A devout Facebook user, he spends at least an hour each night on the site answering voter queries.
King never faced the wrath of super PACs during his previous campaigns, and he expects outside groups will spend roughly $5 million attacking him — in a state with just 1.4 million residents.
“It’s going to be fun most of the time, but it’s not going to be fun to be shot at,” he said of the impending campaign. But in order to get a shot at fixing the Senate, “I’m willing to put up with a little aggravation.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.