Former Gov. John Baldacci announced Wednesday that he will not run for the U.S. Senate, leaving Maine Democrats without a candidate with statewide visibility just hours before today’s filing deadline.

Baldacci said he seriously considered running in the Democratic primary June 12, but decided late Tuesday that it would be difficult for his family if he were to return to Washington for a six-year Senate term.

Baldacci’s decision makes former Gov. Angus King Jr., an independent, the clear front-runner in the race, which could help decide the balance of power in the Senate. Democrats now have a 53-47 majority.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, decided late last month to give up the Senate seat, rather than seek a fourth term, because of her frustration with partisanship in Washington. Her decision to forgo almost certain re-election was seen as a rare opportunity for Democrats to take a seat from the Republicans.

Now, “it looks like Gov. King is the Democratic Party’s choice,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Cornyn said in an interview Wednesday that Baldacci’s departure suggests that Democrats were trying to clear the field for King, who is seen as more Democrat-leaning than Republican.

Democrats Chellie Pingree, who represents Maine’s 1st Congressional District, and Mike Michaud, who represents the 2nd District, considered running for the Senate but ultimately decided to seek re-election to the House.

Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic state senator who’s now a political analyst, said Baldacci’s decision leaves his party in a tough spot.

“Two weeks ago we had three rocks stars that were running, in Chellie, Mike and John, and now we’re in a very precarious position,” Strimling said.

“You need somebody at the top of the ticket to really be the standard bearer for the party,” he said. Those who are left to run lack the stature to raise a lot of money for the campaign and possibly lift Democratic candidates for the state Legislature.

Matthew Dunlap of Old Town, a former secretary of state, was the only Democratic candidate who had filed nomination papers for the seat by the end of Wednesday.

State Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, said she will file her papers today. Benjamin Pollard of Portland, another announced candidate, said Wednesday that he was still circulating nominating petitions but was “optimistic” that he would get the minimum of 2,000 signatures before today’s 5 p.m. deadline for party candidates.

Attempts to contact state Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland, the other announced Democratic candidate, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

In the Republican race, Scott D’Amboise of Lisbon Falls, state Sen. Debra Plowman, former state Senate President Rick Bennett and Secretary of State Charlie Summers have filed papers for the Senate seat.

Two prospective GOP candidates, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Attorney General William Schneider, hadn’t filed papers by the end of Wednesday.

Independents have until June 1 to turn in at least 4,000 signatures to run for Senate in Novmber’s general election.

Baldacci, who served two terms as Maine governor and was in the U.S. House for four terms, noted that he has been working for the Defense Department on military health-care issues. He said he is eager to return to Maine when his contract for that position in Washington expires at the end of next week.

He and his wife, Karen, have a home in Holden and their son, Jack, is a junior at the University of Maine.

“It’s time for me to come home to Maine, not to re-up for a potential six more years down in Washington,” Baldacci said. “This is the right decision for me and my family.”

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said Baldacci’s decision “changes the outlook of the race, without a first-tier Democrat.”

While it would appear to improve King’s chances, the absence of a top Democrat in the race actually increases the pressure on King, she said.

“Voters of both parties, but now especially Democrats, are going to want to know which party King will caucus with” if he wins the Senate seat, Duffy said.

King has said he won’t decide whether to caucus with Democrats or Republicans before he goes to Washington.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said he now rates King’s prospects as high.

“I never call anyone ‘senator’ until the people have their say, but King is perhaps more heavily favored now for an open Senate seat than anyone in any state this year,” Sabato said.

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said “Democrats will have a candidate on the ballot in Maine this fall, but the nominee shouldn’t expect any help from the national party. It’s pretty clear that Democratic strategists are willing to take their chances that, if elected, King will help them stay in the majority.”

Strimling said the absence of a prominent Democrat leaves a vacuum for King to fill.

After King announced his candidacy on March 5, Strimling said, any top Democrat who decided to run could have been seen as a spoiler who was willing to risk splitting moderate and liberal votes and allowing a Republican to win with a minority of the vote.

Strimling noted that in 2010, the Democratic candidate for governor, state Sen. Libby Mitchell, finished third behind Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler.

The Democrats also lost their majorities in the state Senate and House that year.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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

[email protected]