It’s normally pretty routine stuff when a political candidate names campaign aides, but Angus King’s independent U.S. Senate run so far is anything but a routine affair.

So when King’s campaign said last week that Marge Kilkelly, a former Democratic state legislator, and Edie Smith, a former GOP strategist, were signing on, it only added to the intrigue surrounding the “most important Senate candidate in the country,” as the Washington Post has labeled King.

But King himself last week also showed why Democrats are hopeful that the former independent governor will decide to caucus with them if he goes to Washington – and why Republicans already are on the attack despite King’s pronouncement that he won’t pick a party to caucus with until he goes to Washington.

But more on that in a minute.

In the aftermath of GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe’s retirement announcement, King’s candidacy has sucked all the oxygen out of the race and impacted the two major parties in very different ways.

Democrats are giddy with nervous anticipation, because a Senate seat considered a safe GOP hold when Snowe was on the ballot suddenly could play a big role – perhaps the key role – in whether Democrats hold on to their Senate majority.

But King’s entry has driven the National Republican Senatorial Committee – convinced King will indeed caucus with Democrats – to give tongue-in-cheek fundraising tips to Democrat Cynthia Dill and charge back room deal-making between King and national Democrats.

King’s candidacy has prompted Dill, the state senator from Cape Elizabeth, to launch an online petition to demand that King say now – not later – whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans if elected to the Senate.

But national Democrats seem entirely content to stay silent and on the sidelines for now as all this plays out.

King has said he would prefer to remain a pure independent in the Senate, but that’s very tough to do, since it is the parties that hand out choice committee assignments.

Dill is making a clear play for the progressive mantle and trying to take advantage of her presence as the sole woman in the four-candidate Democratic field.

That status would have gone to Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree – if King’s looming independent presence on the fall ballot hadn’t jolted Pingree from the race.

Two national progressive groups already have endorsed Dill, the Women’s Action for New Directions and the Democratic Advancement Political Action Committee.

The NRSC is trying to play a political bank shot with its memo last week to Dill about how she can take advantage of national Democrats’ support for female Senate candidates elsewhere in the country.

The GOP is trying to pump up Dill’s visibility, since they see her as a Democrat who could potentially pull away enough Democratic votes from King to allow one of the six Republicans vying for the GOP Senate nomination to snatch the seat in the fall.

But the GOP, which has a gender gap problem, also is using Dill’s candidacy as an opportunity to charge that the Democrats are being inconsistent about supporting women. And Republicans are trying to tear down King and his vaunted independence from both major parties with their contention there is a secret deal between Democrats and King.

“They (Republicans) are just trying to make life for King and the DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) uncomfortable,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor with the Cook Political Report in Washington.

State Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland, an attorney who also views himself as a strong progressive in the Democratic primary, can’t be happy with the attention Dill is getting.

Hinck last week went after Maine Attorney General William Schneider, one of the GOP Senate candidates, charging that Schneider wasted public funds with his trip to Washington to sit in on one of the health care law oral arguments.

Schneider said he was there just to represent the state on the brief signed on to by Maine and other GOP-led states contending the health care law is unconstitutional.

But Schneider no doubt didn’t mind finding a way to stand out from the GOP field.

And that brings us to why Democrats no doubt took even more comfort last week that the socially liberal but more fiscally conservative King will decide to caucus with their party if he wins.

King told The Portland Press Herald that he supported President Obama’s health care law and is “hopeful that the constitutionality will be upheld.”

Even GOP moderates like Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine favor the law’s repeal, and that position has become a litmus test for Republicans.

While King said he wants to see if the law can be improved, his position that it is constitutional puts him apart from most Republicans – and affirms Democratic hopes that King might just save their Senate majority.

 

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at: jriskind@mainetoday.com