The ledes from news articles published about a 1994 Maine election may turn out to be true in 2012 — the state may elect a King.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) decided not to run for Senate on Wednesday, ending speculation that she may enter the race to replace retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Probably the biggest factor in the decision was the entrance of former Independent Gov. Angus King into the contest, a politician whose popularity in the state is only rivaled by Snowe herself. The possibility of a three way race, with Pingree holding down a solid left flank, a second tier Republican candidate (top choice Maine state Senate President Kevin Raye declined) in the mix, and King taking votes from the middle and both camps, looked to favor the former governor greatly.
So in the end, what was a possible partisan pickup opportunity for the Democrats in the Senate is gone, even if it puts them in a better position in the legislative body. Here’s why.
As TPM previously reported, King caused both Pingree and Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME), the congressional representative from Maine’s second district, to pause before they jumped in the race. King was an immensely popular governor, and a survey from Public Policy Polling (D) conducted last weekend showed that the public remembers him fondly — 62 percent of Maine voters saw him favorably, versus 24 percent who saw him in a negative light. Pingree saw a more even split at 47 - 41.
Michaud made a quick decision to stay out, despite the fact that polling showed he would have been a good general election candidate — the congressman got a 53 - 27 split on favorability statewide. But Pingree, a progressive lawmaker who had the the grassroots clamoring for her to run, held off until Wednesday, when she announced that a run just didn’t make sense. And in the end, it was due to King.
“I would love to see my mom in the US Senate,” Hannah Pingree, Rep. Pingree’s daughter and a former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives told TPM in an email. “But, after looking at all the facts, it was clear that she and Angus King running together drew from many of the same supporters and the risk of electing a Republican was still significant.”
A little context and history is relevant here. In 2010 there was a three-way race for the Governor’s Mansion in Maine. The Democratic candidate was then-Senate President Libby Mitchell, a veteran Maine pol, the Republican was Waterville Mayor and Tea Party backed Paul LePage, and a late entrant was independent candidate and former Democrat Eliot Cutler. As the race reached the finish line last October, Mitchell had all but erased LePage’s lead in the polls and the two were fighting for the seat. And then Cutler came on strong, sapping support from Mitchell and eventually finished second while LePage took it.
The 2010 election was just another illustration of a principle in Maine politics — the state will not only consider independent candidates, they can and do often win.
This cycle, King will not only start out with high name identification and in the good graces of many Maine voters, he’ll be ahead — the PPP poll showed that a King - Pingree - Charlie Summers (the Maine Secretary of State and possible GOP candidate) race would end with the former governor up 36 - 31 - 28, which makes things all the more difficult for the partisan candidates. Like in 2010, the real danger for the party candidates running in these three-way races is when the campaign is down to the final months, when mud is being slung and traditional political attacks are being employed. Independents, like Cutler in 2010, are able to keep above the fray, and when they themselves are attacked they have a ready-made pivot: “See all this partisan bickering and negative politics? That’s exactly why you should elect me.”
King has both advantages. He’s been the leader of the state and he can argue he’s not beholden to any party or ideology. Which is why none of the top tier candidates in either party are lining up to face him.
“According to the polls, my mom beat all potential Democrats in the primaries, and in the head to head general match ups, she beat all potential Republican candidates,” the younger Pingree wrote to TPM. “But the Angus King factor was too complicated and too risky. I think my mom made the best decision for Maine and the country and I take some faith that her re-election to Congress will allow her to keep standing up for all the things that matter - to me, to women, to families, to Mainers, and the country.”
It’s essentially half a loaf for Democrats. As Maine politics goes, this was a rare shot to replace one of the federal officeholders. The state has been trending blue from its days as a Republican stronghold in the 1970s and 1980s, as it went for then-Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992 and has never looked back.
“Chellie Pingree saw polling that said she was going to have a very hard time beating King and could instead hand the race to the GOP, so she made the decision on her own to drop out,” one Democratic strategist told TPM. “The best outcome for Senate Democrats is for King to quickly coalesce support among independents and Democrats, and eliminate any chance Republicans have to even be competitive in this race.”
And there may be another reason to clear the way for King. While he’s been tight lipped about what party he would caucus with, or if he would caucus with any party at all should he be elected to the Senate, Democrats are certainly acting like he’d be more favorable to them. King endorsed then Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, but supported Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in 2004 and then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in 2008. King actually endorsed and recorded a radio ad for Pingree during her re-election campaign in 2010, so he’s clearly trended toward the Democratic side, his former party before he ran for Governor in 1994.
It seems that whether or not he caucuses with the Democrats, he’s at least not (for all indications) a vote for a Republican majority leader in the Senate. And according to the PPP numbers, Mainers are actually hoping he actually does join the Dem caucus — a 51 percent majority of voters polled said that he should just that.
So while Democrats may be disappointed that their opening in Maine may have closed as fast as it came up, they can take heart in the fact that while voters in the state may chose an independent to represent them in the Senate, the numbers show they want the Democrats to gain in some ways as well.
Editor’s Note: Full disclosure: the author of this post, TPM poll editor Kyle Leighton, worked in Democratic politics in Maine earlier in his career.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.