Angus King’s rivals in Maine’s U.S. Senate race criticized the independent front-runner Wednesday for going to Washington, D.C., to raise money from big-name donors and lobbyists.

King defended the fundraiser, saying he is just getting prepared to defend himself against partisan advertising campaigns this fall. But Republicans and Democrats said the trip proves that King is not what he advertises: a nonpartisan reform candidate who won’t owe any favors except to Maine voters.

“He’s taken this very strong stand about trying to, I guess single-handedly, change the way politics works in America. It doesn’t seem like he’s leading by example on that,” said Lance Dutson, campaign manager for Republican Charlie Summers. “If he starts off by hanging around high-powered lobbyists … I can’t imagine the voters in Maine would be able to take his rhetoric seriously.”

Cynthia Dill, the Democratic nominee, said King’s claims to be an independent outsider are disingenuous.

“Today, I am out shaking hands and meeting people at the Pipe Fitters Hall in Augusta, and Angus is in D.C. collecting cash from lobbyists,” Dill said. “He’s a one-percenter (and) insider who is working the system.”

The criticism may sound familiar to King. When he ran for governor in 1994, King criticized his opponents for cozying up to special interests by accepting money from political action committees.

King issued a written statement Wednesday saying he has to be financially prepared to take on partisan special interest groups. That’s a reference to Republican super PACs that could spend millions on anti-King ads, especially if Summers can chip away at King’s lead in the polls.

“This is the beginning of what we expect to be a real dogfight, and I will need to defend myself,” King said in the statement. “I take no joy from this and hope to work to reform our election finance laws if I am elected to the Senate.”

Washington lobbyists and longtime Democratic supporters Tony and Heather Podesta co-hosted the Capitol Hill fundraiser for King. The invitation asked attendees to donate $500, $1,000 or $2,500.

The Podestas are well-known power brokers in Washington. Each one leads a lobbying firm that represents businesses, industries and other clients — even foreign countries — that want to shape federal laws and policies. Tony’s brother John Podesta was President Clinton’s chief of staff and a member of President Obama’s transition team.

The two also are prolific bundlers, wealthy, well-connected donors who gather individual campaign donations from friends and associates so they can give more than the individual maximums.

Other hosts were Izzy Klein, a former aide to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer who now works for the Podesta Group, and Nancy Jacobson, a Democratic fundraiser who helped form the nonpartisan group No Labels. The nonprofit Council for a Livable World is named as a sponsor on the invitation as well.

King attended a similar fundraiser in Washington last month.

Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, issued a statement calling King’s fundraising trip “the height of hypocrisy” and noting that the hosts of the benefit are lobbyists for such special interests as the oil and pharmaceutical industries. Republicans have said King will hand the Senate majority to Democrats if he has the chance.

“It’s increasingly clear that ‘independent’ Angus King isn’t so independent after all,” Webster said in the release.

King has said he won’t decide until after the election, if he wins, which party he will caucus with, if any.

He said Wednesday that he remains independent and isn’t making any promises to donors.

“As I said at a fundraising event in Washington in June and as was reported in Politico, ‘If you’re a solid partisan and you need to know what caucus I’m going to be with, don’t give to me now because I may not be with you.’“

King said he has no choice but to accept PAC donations.

He rejected such money as a candidate for governor, saying PACs were explicitly “set up to influence government through money.”

As a Senate candidate, however, he has accepted more than $63,000 from PACs, including the American Association for Justice PAC, the Engineers Political Education Committee, the American Health Care Association PAC and Google netPAC.

King’s main rivals have received PAC money as well, though not as much as King.

King is the only candidate in the race so far to get help from a so-called super PAC, a committee that spends independently on a candidate’s behalf rather than donating to the campaign directly and being subject to disclosure rules and contribution limits. A super PAC called IcPurple had spent more than $23,000 as of last month to produce a television ad and online ads supporting King.

King has said he will discourage all super PAC support if the other candidates do the same. Dill said she is willing to discuss such a deal but wants more details, while Summers dismissed it as a gimmick.

King said Wednesday that he ran for governor before the U.S. Supreme Court opened to door to unlimited, anonymous donations through super PACs.

“(The Citizens United decision) has made campaigns more expensive than they have to be or should be,” he said. “If you look at Senate races across the country, they are in the tens of millions of dollars. … I am expecting substantial, anonymous negative advertising, and I have to be prepared to respond.”

Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville and an expert in campaign finance, said King may be right about what lies ahead.

Republican super PACs are spending millions of dollars in some states to influence close races, and they are closely watching Maine’s Senate race for signs that King can be defeated.

King’s $900,000 in campaign contributions as of June 30 — more than three times what any other candidate had raised — is not nearly enough, Corrado said.

In Maine’s last Senate race, in 2008, Sen. Susan Collins and her challenger, former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, spent a total of $14 million, he said.

“(King) is far from having raised the amount of money it takes for a major Senate campaign and certainly far from the amount that’s needed to defend against significant spending from outside the state if it decides to come into the race,” Corrado said. “The fact that he is going to Washington to raise money, that’s a basic step in a Senate campaign these days.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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