U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s exit Wednesday as a prospective Senate candidate could lead Democrats to at least tacitly support an independent, former Gov. Angus King Jr., a social liberal who has contributed money to President Obama’s campaigns.

That’s the view held privately and publicly by Democratic and Republican party operatives and analysts in Maine and Washington.

The view is based on the theory that King and a Democratic candidate would divide the Democratic vote, clearing the way for a Republican to win the seat now held by GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe.

In a release Wednesday, Rob Jesmer, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington, contended that “the fix has been in for national Democrats to privately anoint Independent candidate Angus King as their standard-bearer.”

But Pingree said in an interview that the party did not try to influence her decision.

“No one from the Democratic Party tried to convince me to get out of the race,” she said. “They encouraged me strongly to stay in the race.”

And Democratic Party officials have not been talking to King, said Pingree.

King is adamant that he is running as an independent. He said that if he wins, he won’t commit to caucusing in the Senate with Democrats or Republicans until he goes to Washington.

Ben Grant, the Maine Democratic Party’s chairman, said, “the Maine Democratic Party will support the Democrat who is on the ballot, whoever that may be.”

Grant wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Democrats could wind up backing King, but he said “any of that kind of speculation is premature.

“We all know that there is going to be pressure for the Democrats to put their support behind Gov. King,” Grant said. But “that is not a discussion we are having right now.”

He said that Democrats are still gathering signatures to get on the June 12 primary ballot, and that the state and national Democratic parties are “taking this as a step-by-step process.”

Grant said the state party has talked to officials with the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee “about next steps. We haven’t had any discussions with the DSCC about any potential maneuvering with Gov. King.”

Dennis Bailey, a former adviser to King who is not involved with the candidate’s Senate bid, said he would be surprised if King has been a part of any talks with Democrats.

King is “an independent not just in name only,” Bailey said. “I just can’t imagine him doing any kind of backroom talks about it. If there is any maneuvering going on, it is only within the Democratic Party.”

But a Maine Democratic insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to pre-empt party leaders, said Republican Paul LePage’s narrow win in Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial race is fresh on the minds of Democrats.

In that race, a relatively weak Democrat, Libby Mitchell, finished a distant third behind LePage and independent Eliot Cutler.

“Many Maine Democrats are unlikely to make the ‘Libby’ mistake a second time and will coalesce around King early,” the Democratic insider said. “Similarly, the Democratic Party’s elected leadership and campaign apparatus will go out of its way to do no harm to Angus. The calculation is that King is preferable to any Republican and is more likely to caucus with Democrats once elected.”

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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