Democratic Party leaders see Maine as their best opportunity to pick up a Republican U.S. Senate seat -- as long as their candidate doesn’t get in the way.
Democrats are counting on a win by Angus King, an independent who’s running to replace retiring three-term Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. King’s strongest challenger is Charlie Summers, a Republican, while Democratic nominee Cynthia Dill is running a distant third and could still take enough votes from the independent to elect the Republican.
King, a former Maine governor, has defined his campaign by refusing to divulge whether he’ll side with the Democrats or Republicans if elected. Yet Democrats are convinced King would choose their caucus in the Senate.
“National Democrats are absolutely hedging their bets on King,” said Michael Cuzzi, a senior vice president at Vox Global in Portland, Maine, and a former political director for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in New Hampshire.
King’s candidacy forces Democrats into an intricate dance. The national party has neither endorsed nor bankrolled Dill, a state senator who won the party’s Maine primary and who Democratic strategists say can’t win. Still, the party can’t officially endorse King.
King, 68, says his preference is to remain an independent so he’d have the opportunity to be the tie breaker if neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a majority. The Democrats now control the chamber, 53-47.
The structure of the Senate would require King to caucus with one party or the other. Otherwise, he’d be left out of committee assignments.
King voted for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 presidential race, Democratic nominee John Kerry in the 2004 election and Obama in 2008. King said he would vote for Obama again. The two-term former governor supports abortion rights and Obama’s 2010 health care law, which Republicans have vowed to repeal. He backs spending cuts coupled with an increase in taxes and economic growth as part of a deal to reduce the U.S. budget deficit.
The Republicans are doing their own math in the race to protect the Maine Senate seat. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and outside groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have spent about $2 million advertising against King.
Maine Freedom, a Republican-backed political action committee, has aired television ads supporting Democrat Dill’s campaign. The goal is to boost Dill’s poll numbers enough that she would split the vote with King and help the Republican candidate win. The party is borrowing the strategy from the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race, when Republican Paul LePage narrowly won after independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell divided votes.
“It’s a very small needle to thread but it can be thread,” said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, in a telephone interview. “They have to drive King’s support down and they actually have to prop up the Democrat. In three-way races usually the independent is the distant third.”
The 2010 gubernatorial contest is the “ghost that hangs over this race,” said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “The Democrats regret that they did not put the weight behind the independent” in the final weeks of the three-way race that LePage won.
In the 30-day period ending Oct. 1, Summers, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, U.S. Chamber and Maine Freedom aired 2,816 ads -- three times as many as those aired by King’s campaign, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
The chamber spent about $839,000 on the race, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington-based group that analyzes political spending. The chamber plans to buy more ads this month to boost Summers, whom it endorsed, said Rob Engstrom, the group’s national political director.
“We are going to be in this race all the way until Nov. 6,” Engstrom said in a telephone interview. “It’s now a top-tier Senate race that is going to help determine the pro-business majority in the Senate, in our opinion.”
Americans Elect, an organization promoting an online, nonpartisan presidential primary, on Oct. 5 began airing ads in support of King. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, donated $500,000 to that effort.
With King’s initial lead in the polls eroding, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is spending $410,000 on television ads against Summers, Maine’s State Secretary and a former aide to Snowe.
The DSCC’s ads started on Oct. 2 with the slogan: “Charlie Summers marches with the Washington extremists.” Senator Patty Murray, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the DSCC, said Oct. 2 that the committee is in “close touch with people on the ground in Maine,” adding that the national committee has not made any endorsements. The DSCC reserved about $1.7 million in new ad time starting Oct. 9.
The Democratic committee didn’t call to congratulate her on the primary win, Dill, 47, said in an interview at a bagel shop near Southern Maine Community College where she teaches twice a week. The lack of support from the party is “liberating,” said Dill, a civil rights lawyer by training. State party leaders are backing her “100 percent,” said Ben Grant, the party’s chairman.
She’s logged 23,000 miles on her car since January and says she believes “there’s still a lot of room for movement in this race.”
“Dill has grown her support in the public polls,” Cuzzi said.
King said he’s concerned that the ad sponsored by the Democrats may put him in an “awkward position” and might create a “backlash” because “people would think I have something to do with it,” he said in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Brunswick, Maine.
King has spent much of his campaign decrying the negative ads against him as well as the outside spending.
Some June polls showed King with at about 55 percent support. King said those were based on name recognition as a two-term governor. Now, his backing is 45.5 percentage points, giving him a lead of 14.5 percentage points over Summers, according to an average of polls done by the website RealClearPolitics. Dill’s support was 13.8 percentage points.
“Angus King was never going to get 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race,” Cuzzi said.
David Loughran, who worked for the Democrat in the three-way gubernatorial campaign and now is a partner at CD2 Consulting in Portland, Maine, said King’s drop is being affected by outside spending. “Their response needs to be stronger,” he said of King’s campaign.
King enjoys the advantage of name recognition in a state where retail politics is the norm. As he stands in front of the gates of General Dynamics Corp.’s Bath Iron Works shipyard, he jokes with workers waiting for a signal marking the end of their shift, “Don’t run me over now.”
King didn’t want an entourage for his visit to shake hands. He got one anyway: several supporters, mostly Bath firefighters, showed up at the gates to greet him.
Adding to King’s name recognition also are his 20 years as a public television host.
Summers, 52, also travels light. He prefers touring businesses, visiting restaurants and holding town-hall meetings with no more than 100 people.
Sitting at the counter of Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston, Maine, Summers said the involvement of outside groups in the race “speaks to the strength of the campaign.”
“Harry Truman once said he didn’t give them hell, he just told the truth and it felt like hell,” the soft-spoken Summers said.
Republicans have attacked King for leaving Maine with a $1 billion budget shortfall, a charge the former governor refutes because the state constitution requires a balanced budget. The $1 billion shortfall is a structural budget gap projected by state budget officials and is not a deficit or shortfall, he said.
Summers is no stranger to Washington. A commander in the Navy Reserve, he served on the public affairs staff of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Summers also was Snowe’s state director from 1995 to 2004. Still, he hasn’t yet won a full endorsement from Snowe.
Snowe said she would support the Republican nominee and is allowing her name to be used on fundraising literature. She has not campaigned for Summers nor has she donated to his campaign.