The King of the Independents

PHOTO: Angus King

It's good to be King. Angus King that is. Or at least, that's been the general consensus in Maine's Senate race. King, 68, is a two-term Independent governor of the Pine Tree State, and he's currently the frontrunner in the state's senate race to fill the seat left open by Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's impending retirement.

In today's increasingly polarized Congress, King is a unique candidate. So far he has pulled off an impressive feat in his campaign; he's managed to maintain his status as a frontrunner without pledging himself to either party. The former governor has not said who he will caucus with if elected to the Senate. Instead, he has made his campaign message a call for moderation and bipartisanship.

"The fundamental concept of what I'm doing is that the country's in trouble, that we have very serious issues and that we can't get to the issues if Congress doesn't work," King said. "And that more partisanship isn't going to change that."

His campaign rhetoric makes it clear that King is fiercely proud of his political independence. He doesn't shy away from his mixed bag of policy positions and endorsements; he supported George W. Bush in 2000 but supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, he's pro-abortion rights, he's against the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The entrance to his campaign headquarters displays photos of two very different modern presidents--Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.

King is a known commodity in Maine - he served the state for eight years as governor- from 1995-2003- and before that he made a name for himself in the state as the founder of Northeast Energy Management Inc., an energy company in south-central Maine, and as the host of a Maine Public Television program. But to those watching on the outside, King has proven himself to be a tough nut to crack politically speaking and his candidacy has left people scratching their heads on both sides of the aisle in a year where party control of the upper chamber is on the line.

"What I have found in this campaign is - it's kind of amusing - that both sides cherry pick my record to make me look like the other side," King told ABC News. "There are some Democrats who are arguing that I'm really a Republican in disguise because I voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and vetoed a minimum wage increase. The Republicans assume that because I'm for Obama and the Affordable Care Act, I'm a Democrat.

"It seems to be all about gaining control of the Senate," he added. "It doesn't have to do with Maine or with particular issues."

King's big foe has been the Republican Party, however. While Maine Democrats have thrown their support behind their party's nominee, state Senator Cynthia Dill, national Democrats have not officially backed any candidate, fueling the theory that King will ultimately act as a Democrat if elected to the Senate. In late September, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made an ad buy in the state that attacked the Republican nominee, Secretary of State Charlie Summers, but didn't mention King or Dill.

Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has invested about $1 million in the race attacking King and supporting Summers, according to FEC financial reports. The Republican-leaning outside group the Chamber of Commerce has released three ads attacking King, focusing heavily on his record as governor, calling him a "king of spending."

It's not entirely clear whether the attacks have taken a hold among voters. Polling in the state has been all over the map- showing King's lead as small as 8 percentage points and as wide as 26 percentage points. The polling in the state does not meet with ABC's standards for usage.

But what the attacks have not done is push King left or right - he still maintains that he will wait until after the election to decide how he'll proceed with regards to party support.

"I still have every intention of going down there, seeing what the situation is, what the numbers are, what the opportunities are, and what will make me most effective on behalf of Maine," said King, although he noted that he has taken register of the attacks aimed at him. "On the other hand, I wouldn't be human if I didn't take some cognizant of the fact that these guys have been poking me in the eye since July."

But if King had his way, he could avoid being forced to choose a party.

"I'm hoping I can remain fully Independent, still have a committee assignment, and still be effective," he said.

It's not clear if this will be possible. Committee assignments are determined by the parties, and if King does not pledge his support to either Republicans or Democrats, the conventional wisdom is he will not get optimal assignments.

The election is already underway in Maine. Early voting kicked off on October 7. In 2008 a little more than 30 percent of the total vote in the state was cast through early and absentee voting. King is certainly the favorite in the race, but it's not a sure thing. Because there are three major candidates in the race (as well as several other, lesser-known third party candidates)- a candidate needs to siphon off a little more than one third of the support to claim victory, which heightens the stakes for all the candidates.

There's an inherent structural difficulty to King's Independent affiliation - the challenge of reaching out to voters. When Republican and Democratic candidates put their get out the vote operations into place, they typically work off of voter rolls from their party. But having no party affiliation means that those same lists aren't immediately available to the King campaign.

"It's harder for an Independent to do get out the vote. We had to build our own lists and we've done it through phone-banking, identifying our voters and then following up to make sure they vote," King said.

It's a challenge that the King campaign knew they'd face, and began to tackle early.

"It's more of a challenge for an Independent but we've been aware of that from the beginning and really started some serious work on that in I'd say June," he said.

The work of identifying voters spans the whole state. "I don't take any area for granted and I don't concede any areas," he said.

Whether or not this unique approach can work in this day and age is something that ultimately, King notes, Maine voters will decide.

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