Below are excerpts from an interview with King, edited for clarity and length:
Q: Why do you want to be a U.S. Senator?
Angus King: I had no interest or desire in doing so until February 28 of this year [when Snowe announced her retirement]. When I left office after two terms as governor …
Q: You famously packed up your car and went on a months-long trip around the country.
A: Packed up the car, we went on the trip, and in fact the subtitle of my book is “How I left politics, learned how to back up a bus and find America.” Well, the first part is now out.
I worked in the Senate in the 1970s. I worked for the Labor, Public Welfare Committee and we had Ted Kennedy and my old boss, Bill Hathaway, and Walter Mondale. On the other hand we had Bob Taft, Jacob Javitts and I saw with my own eyes that they could work out problems, sit down together, talk, argue, agree, laugh and essentially come to some conclusions on some major legislation. The massive pension reform went through when I was there. And a whole bunch of other things, Pell Grants were invented. Clayborn Pell was on the committee.
When Olympia said [in her statement that Senate partisanship drove her to retire], the two and two I put together was that Olympia, with all of her seniority and ability and everything relationships and everything else, couldn’t make it work. Therefore, I don’t know if anybody with a partisan label can make it work. We’ve got to try something different. One of my life principles is that if something isn’t working, doing something harder isn’t necessarily going to produce the same result.
Q: So you’re willing to go to Washington and serve as a tentpole, the arbiter of major issues?
A: That’s a great way to put it. I’m not going just for symbolism. I want to do something. That was the question that I wrestled with most deeply in the week before deciding to run was whether I could do anything. Ultimately, I concluded that a partisan almost certainly can’t and maybe I can. Maybe I can help to be a little catalyst for a coalition of centrist senators. Maybe I can plant the seed of other people like me around the country running. Maybe my election will send a signal to the Senate leadership that they’d better mind the middle.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this your first political campaign in the 21st Century.
A: That’s right, I ran for reelection [as governor] in 1998.
Q: So what’s changed since then about being a candidate and running a campaign?
A: Two-and-a-half principle things: The first is social media. I have a Twitter account, I have a fantastic Facebook page. The Facebook page for this campaign is proving to be an enormously powerful and important part of this campaign. I can present myself to the public in a much more well-rounded way than typically a guy in a coat and tie standing behind a podium or through press releases. We can put up stuff, pictures with me and my kids at a ballgame or at a picnic and I write my own little things and people can respond. You present a more human side of a person, I think.
What I’ve realized is that it’s like going door-to-door but you don’t have to walk between the houses. I spend about an hour a night, people send messages. There’s a direct interaction with people that I think is very powerful.
Q: You spend an hour a night on Facebook?
A: Yup. It’s sometimes an hour and sometimes two. But I consider it a great chance to see what people are talking about. And it gives me a chance to interact.
The other change, which I’m sort of bracing for, is the money. Particularly the changes enacted by Citizens United [The U.S. Supreme Court case that permitted the expansion of Super PACs]. I’m probably facing anywhere from $3 million to $5 million of negative ads. That doesn’t sound like much from national standards, but in Maine that’s huge. Maine is a state of 1.3 million people. And we’re probably not going to know who’s behind it. It’s going to be all negative, it’s totally unrestrained in the sense that they can say anything. ‘Did you know Angus King kicks dogs?’ Well, I love dogs.
I’ve come to realize that an unencumbered U.S. senator is a profound threat to the whole system. In other words, 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. I ran for governor before, and people cared about it, but it didn’t have lots of people on K Street rushing to Google.
Q: This past week, my colleague Paul Kane wrote a story about the balance of power in the Senate and he pointed out to me that he had written that the GOP chances of taking back the Senate are at risk because Olympia Snowe is retiring and Angus King is likely to win and he’s likely to caucus with Senate Democrats. Nobody, Kane said, called, emailed, stopped in the halls to dispute that assertion. Why does Washington think you’re going to caucus with Harry Reid?
A: I announced early in the campaign that I was going to vote for Obama. Why? Because a reporter asked me. That’s why I announced it, it wasn’t like it was an announcement, I just answered the question. So they score that.
Q: But you voted for George W. Bush in 2000.
A: I did, but that was 12 years ago, they’ve forgotten that.
Q: And you voted for Kerry in 2004.
A: I did. Back in the 1970s, when I worked for Bill Hathaway in the Senate, I was a Democrat. When I came back up here to Maine in 1975, I started what amounted to a 17, 18-year career in public broadcasting. I was the Jim Lehrer of Maine, and I remain enrolled as a Democrat, but because I was a journalist I basically quit active political involvement on the party side. [Editor’s note: King campaign aides said later that the former governor has told them that he dropped his enrollment in the Democratic Party in either 1992 or 1993.]
When I was governor, it was a pretty even record. There were times when I sided with the Democrats, the Republicans were mad as hell. And there were times when I sided with the Republicans and the Democrats were mad as hell.
So why do they think that? That’s what they want to think. One reporter said, well, have you made up your mind and you’re just keeping it secret? And the answer is no.
It’s going to depend a lot on what the circumstances are and what caucusing means. If one party says — because my desire is to be as independent as I can be as long as I can be, subject to being effective. 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.
However, then the question is, 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 and go to the meetings and participate fully or you lose your committee assignment? How the parties handle that with me is going to have a significant impact on my decision.