Maine Senate Race Loaded With Intrigue

PHOTO: Angus King, Independent candidate for the U. S. Senate, speaks to supporters as he officially opens his campaign office in Brunswick, Maine, April 9, 2012.

If you're lucky enough to be in Maine this summer, you're sure to come across the trademark fishing boats, lighthouses and lobsters. But you're less likely to see much political activity, despite the intricate and somewhat confounding Senate race playing out across the state.

Maine voters expected anything but an open Senate race a year ago. Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who has served the Pine Tree state in the Senate since 1995, announced her retirement in February, sending shock waves through Washington. Snowe's retirement was seen as a big plus for Democrats in a state boasting a deep bench of potential Democratic nominees to run for the open seat.

Angus King, the state's former independent governor, is the strong front-runner. The National Republican Senatorial Committee accused King of making a back-room deal with Democrats to keep their strongest candidates out of the race in exchange for caucusing with them if elected to the Senate.

WHAT TO KNOW
  • Independents, Republicans and Democrats battle it out in Maine's much watched Senate race

King, 68, denies any such agreement. He is popular, well-known and independently wealthy, but his candidacy has left some people scratching their heads because he has so far made his bid a referendum on compromise and bipartisan spirit.

"My reason for running is the reason that Olympia retired: When she announced that she was leaving, basically, she was frustrated and couldn't get anything done. That what was when I said, 'Well, if someone with her background, her experience, her seniority, couldn't get anything done, than we better do it a different way,'" King said. "I was in kind of a unique position to do it the different way."

King said he believes the biggest problem facing Maine, and the country as a whole, is gridlock and dysfunction in Washington.

"I think the issue facing the people of Maine is the same issue that's facing the rest of the country which is the functioning of our system," he said. "There are a list of very important issues, starting with the economy and jobs, and then the national debt, and the cost of health care, and a rational energy policy. All of those are important pressing issues, but until we can make the system, and in this case the Senate, actually work, we never get to those issues."

Such a position in the independent-minded state of Maine is unlikely to hurt him. Snowe, after all, was known for being one of the few bipartisan senators in Washington on either side of the aisle. And Maine, despite being written off as a blue state because it tends to go Democratic in presidential elections, is a mixed bag of political ideology.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage is a conservative Republican, and the two senators, Snowe and Susan Collins, are moderate, even sometimes labeled as RINOs (Republican in Name Only.) The state's two congressional representatives - Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud - are Democrats. Pingree is considered to be much further to the left, while Michaud is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats.

King is challenged in the race by two candidates: Secretary of State Charlie Summers, the Republican nominee, and state Sen. Cynthia Dill, the Democratic nominee.

Dill and Summers are more cut-and-dry party candidates. Dill, 47, is a self-described progressive Democrat and former trial lawyer who represents the heavily Democratic area of South Portland in the state Senate. Summers, 52, is an Iraq war veteran who once served as state director for Snowe. Summers also served as a state senator in a traditionally Democratic district in the southern part of the state.

Both candidates only recently claimed their respective party's nominations, beating out a crowded primary field, and their operations are really just beginning to grow. Dill has four full-time staffers. Summers has six, although his staff expects that number to double in coming weeks. While the two candidates differ on many policy issues, they have a common enemy in the race: King.

"Angus, he was governor for eight years. Five of those years were incredible economic times and anybody could have been governor and gotten high marks because all he did was figure out how much money there was to spend," Summers told ABC News during an interview at the Motor Speedway in Scarborough. "The fact is that he doubled state spending and left a billion and a half dollar hole for a friend of mine, John Baldacci."

Baldacci is the Democratic predecessor to Republican Gov. LePage.

Summers has the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee as well as the state's Republican party, but Dill is backed only by the Maine State Democratic party. National Democrats have largely stayed out of the race.

That is because despite his independent affiliation, King is widely considered to be much more Democrat-friendly than Republican-friendly. He endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and again this election. He endorsed Sen. John Kerry for president in 2004, but he endorsed George W. Bush in 2000.

Many of his positions are more Democratic in nature: he is pro-abortion rights, supports the Affordable Care Act and is against the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that opened the flood gates to campaign contributions. But he holds some Republican friendly beliefs as well, such as favoring the reduction of some financial regulations.

Democrats believe that King will ultimately be on their side in the Senate, so national Democrats are staying away, despite Dill's presence as a true blue candidate.

"It's really Democrats who are fighting for working families and small businesses and trying to address the biggest problems that we have, which are huge disparities in incomes and wealth and money influencing the Democratic process" Dill said.

"It's really important that people know that the last time this country was in good fiscal shape, it was under a Democratic administration."

King says he has not yet decided what he will do if elected.

"Lots of those kinds of questions really can't be answered until November" King says. "I don't want to sound like I'm taking anything for granted, but I want to be able to assess all the circumstances, what the numbers are, what the break down is, what the opportunities for Maine are, and make that decision when the time comes."

Summers and Dill say they're aware of the advantages enjoyed by King, who polling shows is considerably ahead. But they maintain that the race is just getting started.

"Certainly, in a state like Maine I think politics is a much more personal endeavor," Summers said. "People expect to see you and tell you exactly what they think of you, but that's OK because what it does is you either get a thick skin and you learn how to be effective in the process, or you stop and you get out of it."

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