AUGUSTA, Maine — Eight months after U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe shocked Maine’s political establishment by announcing she wouldn’t seek another term, the race to replace her is coming to a close.
It was an election contest that, at the start of the year, political observers didn’t think would happen and that the national Republican Party didn’t think it would have to worry about losing.
Now, some pundits are suggesting that partisan control of the Senate could come down to Maine.
Snowe’s late-February departure had prominent Maine politicians on both sides of the aisle weighing a Senate bid. But on the Democratic side, big names like former Gov. John Baldacci and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud ultimately backed away when independent former Gov. Angus King threw his hat into the ring.
While King was an early favorite and maintained a lead in every poll taken in the Senate race, Republicans and affiliated groups didn’t make the campaign an easy one for him.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was the first in a string of right-leaning groups to launch an ad offensive against King in an effort to cut into his favorability and create an opening for Summers, the Chamber’s endorsed candidate. The U.S. Chamber spent $1.35 million on three separate ad campaigns that attacked King for his fiscal record during his two terms as governor.
Another Republican-backed group, Maine Freedom, approached the race from a different angle. It started airing ads in late August urging Democrats to back Dill over King, apparently in an effort to peel support away from the independent who supports President Barack Obama’s re-election and supports the Obama administration’s health care reform law. Maine Freedom spent $359,000 total in August and September.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee also joined the anti-King ad wars in September, with accusations related to King’s wind energy business before King boosters shot back.
In one of the odd twists in Maine’s Senate race, the national Democratic Party’s Senate campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, didn’t endorse Dill. But when a late-September internal Republican poll showed King’s lead over Summers shrinking to just four points, the Democratic committee started pouring $1.48 million into ads attacking Summers without explicitly endorsing King.
While King hasn’t revealed intentions to caucus with either party if elected, national Democrats have largely expected him to caucus with them.
King has also received support on the airwaves and in the mail from Americans Elect, a nonprofit group with support from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that raised $1.75 million to boost the former governor.
The effect of the nearly $7.4 million outside groups have poured into Maine’s Senate race is debatable. Polls released over the weekend show the race dynamics didn’t change much from where they were June, but one thing that’s certain is the outside spending became a constant topic of discussion among the candidates.
King proposed in June that the candidates all disavow outside spending from so-called super PACs and 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups that can spend on political causes without disclosing their donors. So when King began to benefit from outside spending, Republicans and their supporters jumped on it. When National Rifle Association president David Keene traveled to Holden last month to endorse Summers, he hammered King for receiving the support of Bloomberg, a vocal gun-control advocate, through both Americans Elect and a campaign fundraiser Bloomberg hosted for King at his Manhattan home.
That same day, King held a press conference to unveil his latest ad response to an attack from Crossroads GPS, a group co-founded by George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove. The dueling campaign events led the New York Times to describe Maine’s Senate race as a battle between Rove and Bloomberg.
Dill, who’s struggled to build momentum for her campaign and attract substantial support from her own party, has continued to claim she’s the one truly independent candidate unbeholden to the whims of outside spenders.
Independents Andrew Ian Dodge — who originally joined the Republican primary to challenge Snowe when she was still considering a run for re-election — and Danny Dalton also joined the campaign for the Senate seat.
A fourth independent, Steve Woods, dropped out Saturday night, three days before Election Day, and endorsed King.