Updated: March 2, 9:30am
The retirement of Sen. Oylmpia Snowe (R-ME) didn’t set off a pleasant game of musical chairs in the race to replace her in Maine. It set off a sprint through an obstacle course.
There are two effects of Snowe’s decision with respect to timing.
First, neither party was ready for it. The three-term Republican Senator didn’t tip off her fellow GOP members, and Democrats weren’t grooming a major candidate to take her on in fall. She was beyond a lock for re-election — the strong primary challenge talk was just that. Talk.
Second, and more practically, Snowe didn’t leave much time for either party to actually get candidates qualified for the ballot. Partisan candidates in Maine need to get 2,000 signatures from registered party voters by March 15th. The traditional method for getting these is when the parties caucus, as those meetings are a large gatherings of party faithful in a very rural state. Those have already passed.
Right now, it’s a scramble in Maine, constrained not only by the state deadlines, but by the changing political calculus, mostly by the possible entrance of former governor, independent Angus King. Here’s why.
Even though Maine Republicans had a huge year in 2010, winning the governorship and both houses of the legislature, it’s the Democrats who have a harder time sorting out who their candidate for Senate will be.
Maine only has two congressional districts — the first, which encompasses an area slightly above Portland (the biggest population center) to the New Hampshire border, what amounts to the bottom quarter of the state. The second is everything else, a massive amount of space in northern and eastern Maine that is actually the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River. Both Representatives are Democrats — Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) is a progressive lawmaker and Rep. Mike Michaud (D-ME) a labor-bred, pro-life Democrat that is a member of the Blue Dog caucus in Congress.
The sitting Reps. would certainly be the first possibilities for a promotion to the Senate, both historically and as identified by Democrats in the state. This week they both started collecting signatures, not because they officially announced, but because they have to, due to the tight filing deadline. On Thursday evening though, Michaud announced that he wouldn’t be seeking the Senate seat, saying in a statement from his campaign, “I join many Mainers in being frustrated with how Washington operates and believe that both sides of Capitol Hill have fallen into a partisan rut. However, I am proud of being able to work across the aisle to deliver results and I think, for now, I can best continue those efforts in the House.”
In an article published by the Huffington Post Wednesday, Pingree herself said she was “Not likely to say no,” and several progressive groups have been gathering signatures from state activists in an attempt to “draft” her for a run. Pingree was also the first name mentioned by Maine Dems TPM spoke with.
“I think a lot of politicians, and want-to-be politicians, are going to lay awake for at least a few more nights, trying to decide what to do and some will keep scrambling to gear-up so they can keep their options open until March 15th,” Hannah Pingree, daughter of Rep. Pingree and a former Speaker of Maine House wrote in an email to TPM. “But I think by mid-next week things will actually shake out, as people discover the reality of whether they can get the signatures and whether they really want to jump from where they are to run for a higher office.”
The major wrinkle on the Democratic side is that former Gov. John Baldacci is also considering a run. Baldacci would be the only former statewide elected official in the mix on the Democratic side, and he used to hold the congressional seat that Michaud does now, but there seemed to be some serious eye-rolling among party operatives in the state about a possible Senate candidacy. He’s won two gubernatorial elections there, the first in 2002 with 47.1 percent of the vote, but the second in 2006 with only 38, as a more liberal independent candidate took 21 percent of total. And more generally, Baldacci is simply not a charismatic politician, who was often at odds with fellow Democrats while governing.
The bottom line on the major Democratic candidates is this — Pingree enjoys favor in the progressive, activist base as the more liberal candidate and has to be considered the odds on favorite to win a primary contest, especially with the help of national progressive and women’s groups. She’s experienced at both the state and national level and is a prolific fundraiser. But the jumping off point for statewide elected officials has traditionally been from outside of southern Maine: Snowe herself represented the second district before the Senate, as did Baldacci. Current Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) are from central and northern Maine, respectively. So that’s the challenge. Also, then-state Senate President Pingree ran statewide against Collins for her US Senate seat in 2002, losing by a healthy margin.
Baldacci would be very unlikely to win a Democratic primary against Pingree, and if she decided against it, it would be incredibly hard for Baldacci to win the seat as it stands. But one Democrat in the state described his entrance into the race as “definite,” and his brother said as much to the Bangor Daily News, so it’ll likely be one or the other.
Former Governor Angus King, Independent Candidate
The possibility of former Gov. Angus King (I-ME) changes the calculus in two ways. First, in plain political terms, one Democratic operative called him the “most electable person in Maine.” Second, as an non-partisan candidate, the former governor has to collect twice as many signatures (4,000) but he has until June 1st to do it.
In a story published Thursday evening, Kevin Miller of the Bangor Daily News confirmed that both King and fellow independent pol Eliot Cutler (who nearly took the governor’s mansion that ultimately went to current Gov. Paul LePage (R)) both expect to decide by next week if they would officially throw their hats in. But if he or Cutler is thinking politically, they don’t have to affirmatively say anything until both sides have filed their signatures two weeks from now.
If you’re one of the major candidates on Democratic side, King’s possible candidacy gives you pause. Why go through the possibility of a primary with your fellow top-tier colleagues if the prize is to run against both a Republican and one of the most popular and (electorally non-partisan) political figures in Maine’s recent history?
King himself was a very respected governor. A lawyer by education, he practiced in Brunswick, Maine (home of Bowdoin College) and founded an energy company, finding success in business before running for the state’s top elected office in 1994. He won his first term by just 7,000 votes over former Rep. Joe Brennan (D-ME) and future Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Things were easier for him the second time around, when he crushed the comptetition on his way to nearly 60 percent of the total vote.
His politics were always moderate, but have evolved from that of a more Rockefeller Republican early in his career to a bit more left leaning after two decades — he endorsed George W. Bush in 2000, but then Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) in 2004 and then Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in 2008. His endorsement in state races was described by one Democratic operative as a “boon,” to candidates, and in the 2010 gubernatorial when it went to Cutler and he nearly won.
At its heart, the King candidacy would fuse together every possible advantage in Maine politics. He’s credible and experienced. He’s extremely well known. And most importantly he has bi-partisan appeal, a message which Republican Sens. Snowe and Collins have employed for years with great success as the other statewide elected officials, and something that has become even more important as dissatisfaction with Congress and both political parties is at an all time high.
Despite having a hold on every branch of elected state government, the Republicans don’t have a particularly deep bench. There are possible candidates who have run against the Democratic congressional reps before — Secretary of State Charlie Summers is in that category — but no one who’s won an election at that level before.
One candidate does stick out — former Snowe chief-of-staff and current Maine Senate President Kevin Raye. A moderate Republican in the same mold, Raye nearly beat Michaud in his first run for Congress in 2002 and is a respected state lawmaker. But that doesn’t mean that the Maine GOP, which has taken a bit of a rightward turn in the last few years, would totally get behind him.
State Party Chair Charlie Webster told the BDN, “It will be one of the liberals and I think King will run. That means we need to come to an agreement to bring someone that would be different than those two,” which seemed to be a thinly veiled swipe at the idea the Republican candidate should be in the moderate camp.
But for Raye, who was gearing up for another run against Michaud this fall, a Senate campaign might be an even better option. The prospect of an open US Senate seat, with the likely possibility of a boost from his old boss, might look better than another shot at a deeply entrenched Michaud.
Update: Kevin Raye has announced that he will not seek the Senate seat, and instead will stay in the race for the 2nd Congressional district.
Editor’s Note: Full disclosure: the author of this post, TPM newswriter 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.