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US Senate: Can a Maine independent heal a broken Congress?

The man who would be king in a fractured Congress rips folksy one-liners in his campaign for US Senate as often as he stumps his post-partisan, moderate-middle speeches.

The man who would be king in a fractured Congress rips folksy one-liners in his campaign for US Senate as often as he stumps his post-partisan, moderate-middle speeches.

On a poetic early summer morning overlooking the Penobscot River, Angus King doesn’t disappoint on either front.

“A guy came up to me recently and characterized my campaign…. He said, ‘By golly, Angus, I’ve always wanted to vote for none-of-the-above, and you’re it!’” King says to laughter and applause from four dozen supporters. “That’s sort of close, you know. This is an opportunity to say, ‘No, we’re tired of the way it’s going now, we’re tired of the blaming and the back-biting and all that kind of stuff. We want people to work together.’ ”

Mr. King ­– an independent two-term governor, alternative energy millionaire, and former public TV talk show host — wants to be heir to Sen. Olympia Snowe, the well-liked Republican who threw up her hands in disgust at Washington partisanship when she announced her retirement from Congress.

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For now, the race is his to lose. The question is whether Maine’s sending an independent to the Senate would be just another example of the state’s quirky political traditions, or whether, in an era of hyper-partisanship and polarized voting, its electorate might actually be onto something.

“Mainers like people who buck the tide and who demonstrate their abilities. We’re not so willing to take chances on people with no experience,” says Cathy Anderson, a bookstore owner in Bangor, a city of about 30,000 in central Maine. “We want change but we also want some insurance that it’ll work out.”

In February Ms. Snowe stunned voters in the Pine Tree State and colleagues in Washington when she said she wouldn’t run for a fourth term, citing “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies.” Current and former Maine members of Congress had positioned themselves to run until King pulled the rug out by announcing his candidacy. 

Since then, King has consistently polled double-digit leads over any challengers. A survey of Maine voters taken the two days after the June 12 primary elections and released Monday show him beating his Republican and Democratic challengers, 50 percent to 23 percent to 9 percent, respectively. Several other independent candidates are also running.

It’s not surprising then that King often slips and speaks as if he’s already won. One of his central arguments is that if the US Senate ends up evenly divided in November, his vote as an independent could end up making him kingmaker, swinging control of the chamber to either Democrats or Republicans.

“This is a time to say a pox on both your houses,” Deborah Krichels, an educator who voted twice for King as governor, says while standing in a supermarket parking lot in Maine’s largest city, Portland. “Maine has a tradition of electing independent people with integrity.”

On the day after the primaries, at the former pizzeria that now houses his campaign headquarters, King insists that his coy “whom-will-I-caucus-with” position is pragmatic.

“I want to stay as independent as I can be as long as possible, up to but not including being ineffective,” he says in an interview with the Monitor, “I’m not going down there just to make a point. It wouldn’t be fair to Maine.”

“I’ve been campaigning for three months, talking to people in coffee shops, restaurants, on the street, in gas stations, in grocery stores,” he says, sipping a Coke and occasionally toying with the eyeglasses that hang around his neck like a librarian’s. “And I’m not kidding you. The No. 1 thing they say is: ‘Go down there and try to make it work. Why can’t they talk to each other? Why can’t they compromise? Why can’t they listen? Why do they have to keep blaming each other?’ That’s what’s on people’s minds.”

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Shrewd business decisions including investments in alternative energy and wind-power generation have given King sizable personal wealth. And his popularity as governor, including his best-known initiative — giving all middle school students a laptop computer — has lingered nearly 10 years after leaving office.

Both those reasons put him in a position to run an unconventional campaign. He already spends at least an hour a day on Facebook personally responding to messages, and the day after primaries, King called for his competitors to eschew money or support from “super PACs” — the unaffiliated, often secretive organizations that are expected to spend tens of millions of dollars to sway voters across the country. His Republican and Democratic challengers have rejected the proposal.

“It’s an empty, hollow gesture on his part,” says Charlie Summers, a Republican secretary of state, former state senator, and US naval reserve commander. “He had seven great years of the economy as governor. Anyone could’ve been governor then: I mean his toughest decision was: How many laptops do you buy? When all his chickens came home to roost … people will realize Angus’s mess. When these issue are laid out, the bloom will come off the race.”

“To say that we’re going to disavow super PACs in my mind is like agreeing to disavow world hunger. It’s just this lofty platitude that really has no outcome for real people,” says Cynthia Dill, a Democratic state senator, former state representative, and lawyer. “It’s just an issue to make Angus King look good.” 

L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College, says Maine has a tradition of electing independent-minded politicians like Olympia Snowe or the state’s other Republican senator, Susan Collins. Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Independent Gov. James Longley, and Republican Sen.  Bill Cohen all reflected Maine’s penchant for moderation.

Mr. Maisel says super PACs and outside spending represent a genuine threat to King’s high-minded campaign. He says King’s effort to portray himself as not beholden to either political party will play well among Maine voters, but it’s naïve to think as an independent he might be able to play kingmaker in the Senate, where 60 votes are far more important to passing legislation than a simple majority. 

“He may be able to negotiate for a better committee, but he’s not going to be able to negotiate for [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell or [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid to be getting together and singing ‘Kumbaya’ or anything,” Maisel says.