March 8, 2012

Democrat Pingree skips race for Senate

She chooses to defend her House seat and avoid a possible split vote that could hand the seat to the GOP. Will ex-Gov. Baldacci make a run?

By Jonathan Riskind
Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON - Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree says she won't run for the Senate, apparently boosting the independent candidacy of former Gov. Angus King Jr.

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With U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree forgoing a Senate run, many of the 12 Democrats interested in her House seat are likely to skip the race.

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Pingree announced Wednesday that she will run for a third term representing Maine's 1st Congressional District, giving other Democrats a shot at the Senate seat that Republican Olympia Snowe will vacate.

However, Democrats and Republicans face a formidable candidate in King, a social liberal and self-described fiscal conservative who won gubernatorial campaigns in 1994 and 1998. King won re-election with nearly 59 percent of the vote in a five-way race.

Snowe's decision last week to give up an apparently secure seat has transformed Maine's Senate race into a key national contest, which could determine whether Democrats keep their majority in the Senate. The race is expected to attract the attention of national party leaders and set new campaign spending records for a federal election in Maine.

Pingree was considered the strongest Democratic candidate for the seat after Rep. Mike Michaud, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, decided a week ago to defend his seat rather than run for the Senate.

Many observers believe King will take many Democratic votes in November, giving the Republican candidate a clean shot at Snowe's seat.

In an interview Wednesday, Pingree said, "We have seen three-way contests before become very complex (in Maine) and I didn't want to take the chance that my entering the race would make it more likely for a Republican to be the next senator from the state of Maine."

King said in a prepared statement that he was surprised to learn of Pingree's decision, but added, "This is a personal relief to me because I wasn't looking forward to running against a friend."

Pingree's decision leaves another former governor, John Baldacci, as the most noteworthy prospective Democratic candidate for Snowe's seat. Dan Cashman, a Baldacci spokesman, said Wednesday that Baldacci is "still weighing his options for a potential run and will have an announcement one way or the other when he is ready."

Party candidates have until March 15 to submit at least 2,000 signatures to get on the June 12 primary ballot.

Baldacci has been working at the Pentagon, in a contract job studying military health care reform issues. That job ends this month, Cashman said, "and any decision he makes regarding a potential Senate run is independent from his position at the Pentagon."

Former Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat, says he is running for the Senate. And Democratic state Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth, who shifted from a Senate candidate to a House candidate when it appeared that Pingree might run for the Senate, said Wednesday that she is now back in the Senate race.

State Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland, another Democratic Senate candidate who thought about running for the House, said Wednesday night that he now is back as a Senate candidate.

The Republican field now has about a dozen declared candidates. One of them, state Sen. Debra Plowman of Hampden, said that as the GOP nominee, she would have had a better chance of winning a three-way race with Pingree and King competing for Democrats' votes.

"I would have preferred that she stay in the race, to tell you the truth," said Plowman, the assistant state Senate majority leader.

Several of her potential primary opponents are better known statewide, including former Maine Senate President Rick Bennett, Secretary of State Charlie Summers, Attorney General William Schneider and state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.

The GOP field also includes Scott D'Amboise, a businessman from Lisbon Falls who is affiliated with the tea party and began running for the nomination last year.

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