In less than five weeks, Democratic primary voters will go to the polls with a solemn question to answer: How badly do you want to lose?

The top of the November ballot will be the nomination for the U.S. Senate race to fill the seat left vacant by the retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe. For one brief shining moment, this looked like the opportunity for Democrats to stabilize their hold on the Senate by turning a safe Republican seat into a Democratic one.

But then independent Angus King – of the empathetic eyebrows and 62 percent approval rating – crowded all the Democratic heavy hitters out of the race, leaving the field to lesser-known, lesser-financed contenders.

So Democratic primary voters know that they are not going to get George Mitchell, the former occupant of Snowe’s seat who won re-election in 1988 with 81 percent of the vote (making him the last Maine Democrat to get a majority in a statewide race).

But are they looking for a Tom Connolly?

Connolly, you may remember, is the merry prankster criminal defense attorney who ran for governor against King as the Democratic nominee in 1998.

Connolly was known for always wearing a duckbill fishing cap and funny homemade buttons, including one with a crown and a red stripe across it (“No Kings!”).

Connolly had an issue he pressed relentlessly – the destructive effect of alcohol on society he observed through the people he met in his legal practice. But he had no money to speak of and not much support from the Democratic establishment, which seemed content to sit out King’s second term.

He ended up with 12 percent of the vote, which may be an all-time low for a major-party nominee in Maine. It is an important number because in Maine’s multiparty elections, one of the major parties has to stumble if an independent is going to win.

So Democrats looking for another Connolly to lose big in this Senate race have a strong field to chose from. Here are the top three rated on the Connolly scale.

CYNTHIA DILL

An articulate speaker, a strong advocate for workers and women and a base in the state’s major population center might make this state senator look like a dangerous candidate for a Democrat hoping for a King win to block the Republicans from retaining this seat.

But Dill is also the loosest of loose cannons in Maine politics, and that makes her the closest thing to Tom Connolly on the menu.

Any politician who would make a campaign video of herself jogging in place on what appears to be a veteran’s grave (it was a memorial, not a tombstone) and who would engage in a banter war with an admittedly fake Angus King on Twitter is well positioned to let the real Angus reap Democratic votes.

Score on the Connolly scale: Four fishing caps.

JON HINCK

This tall, handsome lawyer from Portland has been the lead Democrat on energy issues in Augusta. Since the Republican takeover of state government, he has offered a principled and reasonable alternative to some of the worst ideas put forth by the tea party governor.

But, as the founder of Greenpeace USA, Hinck will have to do some explaining to do in the parts of the state where environmental activism is equated with killing jobs. (Could there be a picture somewhere of Hinck on a Zodiac inflatable harassing a Bath-built destroyer?)

Hink may not be as fun as Connolly, but he has the potential to draw just as few votes outside Greater Portland.

Score on the Connolly scale: Three fishing caps.

MATT DUNLAP

This former bartender and Orono legislator does not look like a U.S. senator. He is not tall and imposing, and he doesn’t appear to have his suits tailored.

But he is well positioned to be his party’s nominee. He is based in the 2nd Congressional District, meaning he would have a much easier chance of making himself known down here than the others would have introducing themselves up north.

As secretary of state, Dunlap championed core Democratic values, making it easier for people to vote and opposing the intrusive post-9/11 effort to turn driver’s licenses into national identity cards. Since he left office, his interim direction of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine indicates his affinity with gun-loving Mainers.

If you are looking for a candidate who might be able to win the November election, he would be the one. But Democrats looking to clear the way for King should beware.

Score on the Connolly scale: One fishing cap.

After they get thought this election, Democrats might ponder how to get ready for an election in which the question is how do they win, not how badly they want to lose.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]