Former Gov. Angus King Jr., a high-profile independent who enjoyed broad popularity in his two terms as governor, announced Monday night that he will join the race to succeed Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.
After giving a previously scheduled lecture at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, his hometown, King made his much-anticipated announcement. He said Snowe’s rationale for forgoing likely re-election – that the two-party system in Washington is broken – shows that electing an independent makes sense.
“Frankly, I think I might scare (the parties), and that would be a good thing,” he told about 200 people in the college’s Moulton Union. “Nobody will be able to tell me how to vote, except the people of Maine.”
The race has national significance because a Democratic win in Maine, considered unlikely before Snowe announced last week that she won’t seek a fourth term, could determine whether Democrats keep their majority in the Senate.
King’s candidacy has some Democrats worried that the socially liberal independent could take enough votes from the Democratic nominee to throw the election to the GOP. His decision had been awaited since soon after Snowe’s surprise announcement on Feb. 28.
Eliot Cutler, an independent gubernatorial candidate in 2010, considered running for the Senate but backed away Monday and endorsed King, issuing a statement saying King “would bring to the Senate the independence, the abilities, the reputation and the disposition that will make him a great senator.”
King endorsed Cutler in his run for governor.
For Democrats and Republicans, multi-candidate Senate primaries remain possible. It remained unclear Monday who all of those candidates will be.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree issued a statement after King’s announcement saying she is still considering a run and acknowledging that control of the Senate could be at stake. She didn’t say how King’s entry into the race might affect her thinking.
A longtime Maine Democratic consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if Pingree doesn’t run, a major factor would be her concern that she and King could divide the Democratic liberal base and pave the way for a GOP victory.
King didn’t name any of his potential rivals for the seat Monday night, and pledged a campaign free of negative ads.
He made his case for an independent in the Senate, noting that skeptics doubted he would be effective as governor without the backing of eitherparty.
“We proved that with civility, common sense, building bridges, working with coalitions and working with people one at a time, we could do something,” he said.
“I can speak for the middle.” King said, “The real issue is the system itself.”
A Maine Democratic insider who is close to Pingree and King noted before King’s announcement that the two are close friends. King celebrated Thanksgiving at Pingree’s house in North Haven last fall, at a dinner attended by about 15 to 20 people.
King said in a phone interview Monday that he and Pingree are in fact close friends, dating back three decades, but that “can’t necessarily decide what you are going to do. … Ultimately, you have to do what is right for the country.”
Pingree’s husband, S. Donald Sussman, a frequent Democratic donor, is buying a 5 percent equity stake in MaineToday Media, which owns The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other Maine media outlets.
Former two-term Democratic Gov. John Baldacci also is considering the Senate race. His thinking won’t be affected by King’s decision, or Pingree’s, said Dan Cashman, a public relations executive in Bangor who is serving as spokesman for Baldacci.
He said Baldacci will “make the decision based on what he feels is the right thing to do.”
Former Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap of Old Town also is running as a Democrat.
On the Republican side, a number of potential candidates have taken out papers to circulate nomination petitions.
Maine Attorney General William Schneider said in an email during the weekend that he has decided to seek his party’s nomination.
Other Republicans who are considering running are Maine Secretary of State Charles Summers, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and ex-Maine Senate President Rick Bennett.
Also running is Scott D’Amboise, a tea party-affiliated candidate from Lisbon Falls who was challenging Snowe in the GOP primary.
Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine, said King could win as an independent in a three-way race, as he did in Maine’s gubernatorial elections in 1994 and 1998.
“How good his actual chances are will depend on who the major-party candidates are, and to a lesser extent on whether or not any other independents throw their hats into the ring,” Brewer said.
Sandy Maisel, a government professor at Colby College, said King is a formidable candidate. And if Pingree doesn’t run, King will be the favorite, an independent who can run to the center and raise enough money to compete with major-party candidates, Maisel said.
But Brent Littlefield, a GOP consultant in Washington who knows Maine well and advises Republican Gov. Paul LePage, said King’s relationship with Democrats “sets up a nice scenario for the Republican candidate” because King will capture Democratic votes regardless of who is the party’s nominee.
Spending for the race is expected to eclipse that for Maine’s Senate race in 2008, when Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democrat Tom Allen generated a total of about $17.5 million.
One Democratic consultant has said he can envision this year’s candidates spending as much as $30 million in all, especially with a credible independent like King in the race. Millions more would be spent by the national party committees and outside groups.
King sidestepped questions about campaign finances Monday night, joking that he hopes he won’t have to finance his campaign himself, “and so does Mary (Herman),” his wife.
King said he doesn’t worry that his candidacy could lead to a Republican win. “I don’t go into campaigns planning to be a spoiler,” he said in the phone interview. “When I go into a campaign, I go in planning to win.”
He has until June 1 to file 4,000 signatures to get on the November ballot as an independent.
King, who is 67, was governor from 1995 to 2003, winning re-election in 1998 by a wide margin. In his first gubernatorial campaign, in 1994, Collins was the Republican candidate.
King has given nearly $3,000 in campaign contributions to Barack Obama: $1,750 in 2008, when Obama first ran, and $1,000 last fall, for Obama’s re-election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance research organization.
King supported Republican George W. Bush for president in 2000, then endorsed Democrat John Kerry for president in 2004, criticizing Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq and the economy, and charging that Bush was too partisan and ideological.
King’s son, Angus King III, who was present for Monday’s announcement, worked in the Clinton White House.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said that as an independent senator, King would have to pick a party to caucus with if he wanted good committee assignments and maximum influence. Independents Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut now caucus with Democrats.
King said he could envision himself caucusing with either party, depending on the issues at the time, or neither party at times.
King is a co-founder of Independence Wind, a wind energy company that’s involved with the Record Hill Wind project in Oxford County.
He was an attorney and a successful businessman before he was governor, founding an energy efficiency company called Northeast Energy Management. He gained statewide visibility before his election in 1994 as the longtime host of the “Maine Watch” show on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
As governor, King’s initiatives included an overhaul of the state’s mental health and correctional systems, a push to increase public conservation lands and a drive that provided Apple laptops to every seventh- and eighth-grader in the state.
King once said that he was an independent because “I’m too fiscally conservative for the Democrats and too socially liberal for the Republicans, like 75 percent of the American people.”
King will be a formidable candidate, said state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who served in the Maine House while King was governor.
“He brings an awful lot to the table,” Gerzofsky said. “He was a very popular governor. As an independent in these times, I think he makes a very strong statement.”
Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, was in the state Senate when King was governor.
“He tried to govern from the middle,” Davis said. “As governor, he was a very easy man to like.”
But he said that while King talks about addressing the problems that prompted Snowe’s departure, it would be hard for an independent to make a difference in Washington.
“He won’t have a caucus,” he said. “I don’t see how on Earth he’ll be able to help with the problems without at least some supporters around him. An independent isn’t going to be able to do it.”
— MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover and Portland Press Herald Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.
MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: [email protected]