Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By STEVE PEOPLES/The Associated Press
BRUNSWICK — Independent Senate candidate Angus King of Maine has a woman problem: He's not one.
"It's patronizing to women to say you have to be a member of the female gender in order to support the interests and rights and privacy of women," says independent former Gov. Angus King, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Olympia Snowe.
2012 File Photo/John Ewing
"In my view, it's critically important to have more women at the table making decisions," says state Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, who is running in the June U.S. Senate primary.
2012 File Photo/Gordon Chibroski
The popular former governor is the undisputed front-runner in the campaign to replace retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, the state's most powerful female voice in a generation.
But beneath the 68-year-old businessman's popularity is a stark political reality: For many Maine women, King is not their first choice. And this election, perhaps more than any other, underscores the sometimes conflicting priorities for a Democratic Party struggling to beat back a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate.
Democrats are betting big on women in elections across the nation -- from the presidential battleground to this coastal Maine community where King opened his state headquarters last week. They have accused Republicans of waging a "war on women," seizing on the GOP's push to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, adopt stricter abortion laws and block contraception coverage for employees of religious institutions.
While women are a key voting bloc nationwide, King's need to court them in Maine may be more acute.
He is trying to replace Snowe, a moderate and backer of abortion rights who enjoyed support from women in both parties during a congressional career that spanned more than 30 years. He's also working against a proud local tradition that has sent a Maine woman to the U.S. Senate in seven of the last eight decades. And he faces lingering disappointment from some voters who preferred Rep. Chellie Pingree, the state's top elected female Democrat, who did not enter the contest.
Evidence of King's challenge is everywhere, even among the applause, balloons and laughter at the headquarters-opening party in Brunswick.
"I wanted Chellie to run," 48-year-old registered Democrat Tory Dietel Hopps, a philanthropic adviser from Cumberland, said in the midst of the crowded office. "But if we can't have Chellie in the Senate, we can have Angus. That works for me."
King is doing all he can to enhance his appeal to women, although he acknowledges the obvious limitations.
"I'm not a woman. Blame my mother," a smiling King said. But he praised the state's tradition of sending women to Washington.
"I think it's important. I've supported (Sen.) Susan (Collins) and Olympia practically every time they've run," King said, noting that his first "four or five" campaign hires were women. "But I think it's patronizing to women to say you have to be a member of the female gender in order to support the interests and rights and privacy of women. That's like saying white people shouldn't pass the Civil Rights Act."
King, who also favors abortion rights and opposes efforts to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, says the GOP's focus on abortion laws, women's health providers and contraception is "a huge mistake."
Democratic leaders in Washington have been pushing the woman theme since late last year.
With a slate of strong female candidates competing in Senate races from Hawaii to Wisconsin, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray suggested in December that 2012 would be the new year of the woman. Her organization has already actively supported female contenders, even in states where Democratic primaries have yet to winnow the field.
But not in Maine.
The campaign committee has been reluctant to rally behind Cynthia Dill, a state senator from Cape Elizabeth who built a legal career fighting gender discrimination. She is facing fellow Democrat Matthew Dunlap, a former secretary of state, among others, in a June primary. Ultimately, she hopes to defeat King in the general election and keep Snowe's seat in female hands, as it has been since 1995.
"This election is about values and choices. And in my view, it's critically important to have more women at the table making decisions," Dill said.
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U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe
2010 File Photo/Kat Franchino