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Maine GOP Finds Hope in Independent Angus King

Republicans are quietly optimistic about Maine after initially panicking that Sen. Olympia Snowe’s unexpected retirement would throw her seat to the Democrats.

Boosting the GOP’s hopes, ironically, is former Gov. Angus King.

The formidable Independent and supporter of President Barack Obama scared top Democrats out of the Senate race. Although multiple Democratic candidates are running in the June 12 primary, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have put their hopes for flipping this seat on King, who many political observers believe will caucus with the Democrats.

But King has yet to reveal his plans, and Maine political strategists on both sides say his indecision could be legitimate. And, where a one-on-one race looked problematic for the Republicans in the Pine Tree State, whose two House Members are Democrats, the GOP is now hopeful that its candidate could win a three-way contest with a plurality, as happened in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

“Democrats shouldn’t be saying [King] is in the bag,” said one Maine Democratic strategist who is not involved in the race. “And Republicans shouldn’t be attacking him profusely because at the end of the day, he is going to do what he thinks is best.”

In 2010, current Gov. Paul LePage (R) won with 38 percent of the vote against a Democrat and an Independent who split the rest of the electorate. In fact, the Independent in that race finished second, with the Democrat a distant third. Fearing a repeat of this scenario, top-tier Democrats have stayed out of the 2012 Senate race and assumed that King will vote for Reid as Majority Leader.

Snowe, a three-term Senator and former House Member, was considered well-positioned for re-election and appeared committed to running until her surprise retirement announcement. The timing of her decision meant Republican primary candidates had little time to raise money or collect the signatures required to earn a spot on the June 12 ballot.

But after a brief scramble, several Republican candidates emerged, including four deemed viable: former state Senate President Rick Bennett, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, state Attorney General William Schneider and Secretary of State Charles Summers. Poliquin, Schneider and Summers were all elected to their current positions by the Legislature.

Poliquin and Bennett have separated themselves from the pack.

Poliquin was the only candidate advertising on television, with an ad buy of about $150,000. Further enhancing his credibility is his potential to self-fund. He also picked up a FreedomWorks PAC endorsement, has been actively courting the tea party and is the most likely Republican in the field to garner the movement’s support.

The other candidate to separate himself is Bennett. He raised the most money in the first quarter and has what unaligned Maine Republicans describe as the most organized campaign.

Republicans acknowledge that they face an uphill battle. But what might indicate their private optimism is the strength of consultants the GOP candidates have hired. Schneider hired Snowe’s former campaign manager, Justin Brasell, who previously advised Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).  

“The campaigns are not as robust as voters would expect to see in a U.S. Senate primary,” said Republican consultant Brent Littlefield, who is advising Bennett and previously worked for LePage.

King continues to play coy, and in an email exchange with Roll Call, he declined to hint which party he might caucus with if elected Nov. 6. The Senate’s two Independents — retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) — vote with the Democrats.

King said he would base his decision on whether to caucus with a party at all on whether doing so is necessary for him to serve his state effectively. The former governor added that he intended to remain independent of both Senate conferences as long as he could, if not indefinitely, unless such associations are required for committee membership.

“A big part of my decision will be based upon which caucus will allow me the most independence and the minimum of party control,” King said.

King’s candidacy was enough to scare off Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both of whom would have been considered top-tier contenders for Snowe’s seat. Each considered running before deferring to the former governor. Republicans have repeatedly pushed the story that King made a deal with the Democrats to caucus with them after the election.

But not all Democrats played along. State Sen. Cynthia Dill and former Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap declared their Senate candidacies prior to Snowe’s February retirement announcement, and both have declined to drop out of the Democratic primary. Dunlap is described as “reasonable” and “rational” and is better positioned to appeal to voters in a general election. His campaign is also more organized, political watchers in the state said.

However, some Democrats speculate that Dunlap voters might already be aligned with King and will sit out the primary. Dill is a liberal firebrand and more likely to motivate base Democrats. National party officials are skeptical of both Democrats’ viability in the general election.

While all of these other candidates position for the primary June 12, King has no primary of his own. And he confirmed to Roll Call that he has met the threshold of signatures due June 1 to qualify for the general election ballot.

“It’s definitely his [race] to lose,” the unaligned Maine Democratic strategist said.

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