Back in the ’90s, Maine looked like an island of moderation in a country divided. We had two Republican senators, two Democrats in the House, a closely split Legislature and an independent governor who was broadly popular across the political spectrum.
But while Washington was embroiled in the politics of personal vilification, Maine’s government was more interested in getting things done.
Fifteen years later, Maine appears to be as sharply divided politically as the rest of the country, led by a governor who speaks only to his base and who is opposed by a broad coalition of critics who are focused on the next opportunity they have to vote him out of office.
This is the scene that former Gov. Angus King has chosen for his re-entry into Maine politics as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Maine has not changed, he promises, even if the angry voices have found new ways to make themselves heard. People here are still more interested in problem-solving than in party labels, he says, and they are looking for a way to express that in the voting booth.
Whether he is right will be the big, unfolding story of the next eight months. King, who visited The Portland Press Herald newsroom Tuesday, says he believes this is the same state he led from 1995 to 2003. But he will face some new wrinkles, no matter who his Democratic or Republican opponent ends up being.
King self-financed his first campaign in 1994, when all the candidates combined spent $5.5 million. This year, each of the major-party candidates will be expected to raise and spend about that much. That doesn’t count the millions more expected to flood in from national party organizations and outside groups seeking to swing the balance of the U.S. Senate.
So the independent candidate is going to need a lot of help to be heard.
And he enters a political environment where bitterness is much more part of the vocabulary than it was the last time around.
King says that, deep down, Maine hasn’t changed. His campaign will put that to the test.