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

Independent former Gov. Angus King, who is running for the US Senate seat of disillusioned moderate Republican Olympia Snowe, hopes to play kingmaker in a divided Congress.

By Mike EckelCorrespondent / June 18, 2012

Former Maine Gov. Angus King speaks during press conference in Brunswick, Maine, on June 13, a day after primary elections.

John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald/AP

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Bangor, Maine

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. 

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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.

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.

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