AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Oxford County Democratic Party Chair Cathy Newell was sitting in the party’s Bethel office on Wednesday, where you could pick up a sign supporting independent U.S. Sen. Angus King’s 2018 re-election bid. You’d just have to get it from her car.
That’s because Newell of Greenwood thought it better not to bring signs for non-Democrats inside, even though many of the same people who volunteer for phone banks that Newell organizes for King also make calls for Democrats.
“Well, I’m a pretty straight-ticket Democratic voter,” said Newell, going through the type of response she usually gives to skeptical liberals. “I’ve been the county chair over here, but I’m absolutely supporting Angus King because he’s respected in Washington, he’s doing his job and most of the time, he votes with the Democrats.”
That sums up the political space that King, 74, of Brunswick occupies in the likely coda to his career. In November, King is the heavy favorite for re-election over challengers from his right and left, state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Democrat Zak Ringelstein of Yarmouth, in a race to be decided by ranked-choice voting.
Before winning his first of two terms as Maine governor in 1994, King rejected the Democrats. But he has caucused with them since winning a Senate seat easily in 2012. In a Friday phone interview from Washington, D.C., he said “I suspect so” when asked if it would be his last run.
Since he was governor, King has frustrated Republicans who see his independence more as a schtick than a standing. During his Senate tenure, GovTrack has deemed him the fifth-most conservative member of the Democratic caucus.
King endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, but he voted for 12 of President Donald Trump’s 18 original nominees for Cabinet-level positions. He opposed the Republican president’s picks to the U.S. Supreme Court — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
When asked to cite legislative accomplishments, King references a bipartisan 2013 bill that lowered student loan interest rates and work with Republicans in Maine’s congressional delegation with a federal economic development team on a plan to boost the struggling forest products industry.
“I think it would be an exaggeration to say the Republicans see me as a pure neutral,” King said. “But they also see me as somebody they can work with.”
FiveThirtyEight pegs King’s chances of keeping his seat above 98 percent and an August poll measured King’s support at 52 percent to Brakey’s 25 percent and Ringelstein’s 9 percent, though the Republican has said an internal poll shows a tighter race between him and King.
King is also running one of the smallest re-election campaigns for a Senate incumbent in 2018, but his fundraising total of $4.8 million as of June’s end was still more than seven times the combined hauls of Brakey and Ringelstein. It has left the challengers hustling for attention, even as King has run a relatively quiet campaign on weekends while often detained in Washington.
Brakey, 30, broke into Maine politics on the libertarian fringe of his party, running former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s insurgent 2012 presidential campaign here. In the Legislature, he is best known for a 2015 bill that repealed the state’s concealed-handgun permit mandate.
He declined to say if he voted for Trump when he rolled out his Senate run last year. But Brakey said last week that he voted for Trump and has been “pleasantly surprised” by Trump.
He appeared alongside the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. at a Portland rally earlier this month. Brakey has hit King on his votes against Republicans’ tax cut package and Kavanaugh, and on libertarian-tinged issues including a vote to reauthorize a warrantless surveillance program.
He has also used Trumpian rhetoric to hit King at times. An online video from Brakey said King wants to “replace your kids with refugees from Syria,” citing King’s statement that Maine needs new residents — whether they be from “New Jersey, Iowa, Somalia, Ireland or Syria.”
“People are excited about this race because we’re running on a message that is really about fighting for Maine, and people are sick and tired of Washington, D.C., taking advantage of us,” Brakey said.
Ringelstein, 32, has criticized King’s support for a bill to roll back rules on certain banks and contributions from corporate political committees. The former teacher and startup founder is the only Senate candidate backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and is running on an aggressive platform including universal health care and a $60,000 minimum wage for teachers.
He has often criticized his party. Last week, he called it “outrageous” that the Maine Democratic Party wanted to charge him $100,000 to join its coordinated campaign. Not doing so means he is left out of the party’s campaign promotional material.
Chris Glynn, a spokesman for the party, said it “understood” his decision not to and has been “happy to invite and include him” to and in events.
“I’ve spoken openly about how the Democratic Party needs to start acting like the party of the working people again, and in order to do that, it needs to listen to its organizers and the people on the ground and the workers of this state,” Ringelstein said.
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, said Brakey has run an energetic campaign, and he’d be “less surprised than some might be” if he upsets King, adding that “it will definitely be a very surprising race to a lot of people.”
Betsy Sweet, a Hallowell lobbyist who lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary in June, is one of the few well-known Democrats who have endorsed Ringelstein. She said she backs the Democrat for his campaign finance stances and the party’s need to attract young people.
But she also said King has done “a good job” and noted that ranked-choice voting prevents a spoiler in the race, saying “there’s no worry that someone’s not going to win the majority.”
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