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.
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“I want to stay as independent as I can be as long as possible, up to but not including being ineffective,” he says in an interview with the Monitor, “I’m not going down there just to make a point. It wouldn’t be fair to Maine.”Skip to next paragraph
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“I’ve been campaigning for three months, talking to people in coffee shops, restaurants, on the street, in gas stations, in grocery stores,” he says, sipping a Coke and occasionally toying with the eyeglasses that hang around his neck like a librarian’s. “And I’m not kidding you. The No. 1 thing they say is: ‘Go down there and try to make it work. Why can’t they talk to each other? Why can’t they compromise? Why can’t they listen? Why do they have to keep blaming each other?’ That’s what’s on people’s minds.”
Shrewd business decisions including investments in alternative energy and wind-power generation have given King sizable personal wealth. And his popularity as governor, including his best-known initiative – giving all middle school students a laptop computer – has lingered nearly 10 years after leaving office.
Both those reasons put him in a position to run an unconventional campaign. He already spends at least an hour a day on Facebook personally responding to messages, and the day after primaries, King called for his competitors to eschew money or support from "super PACs" – the unaffiliated, often secretive organizations that are expected to spend tens of millions of dollars to sway voters across the country. His Republican and Democratic challengers have rejected the proposal.
“It’s an empty, hollow gesture on his part,” says Charlie Summers, a Republican secretary of state, former state senator, and US naval reserve commander. “He had seven great years of the economy as governor. Anyone could’ve been governor then: I mean his toughest decision was: How many laptops do you buy? When all his chickens came home to roost … people will realize Angus’s mess. When these issue are laid out, the bloom will come off the race.”
“To say that we’re going to disavow super PACs in my mind is like agreeing to disavow world hunger. It’s just this lofty platitude that really has no outcome for real people,” says Cynthia Dill, a Democratic state senator, former state representative, and lawyer. “It’s just an issue to make Angus King look good.”
L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Colby College, says Maine has a tradition of electing independent-minded politicians like Olympia Snowe or the state’s other Republican senator, Susan Collins. Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Independent Gov. James Longley, and Republican Sen. Bill Cohen all reflected Maine’s penchant for moderation.
Mr. Maisel says super PACs and outside spending represent a genuine threat to King’s high-minded campaign. He says King’s effort to portray himself as not beholden to either political party will play well among Maine voters, but it’s naïve to think as an independent he might be able to play kingmaker in the Senate, where 60 votes are far more important to passing legislation than a simple majority.
“He may be able to negotiate for a better committee, but he’s not going to be able to negotiate for [Senate minority leader] Mitch McConnell or [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid to be getting together and singing ‘Kumbaya’ or anything,” Maisel says.