Democrats’ (potential) Angus King problem

September 27, 2012

Republicans are in a pickle in Missouri, where they are now confronted with whether to fund a badly damaged Senate candidate they swore off a month ago.

But Senate Democrats might face their own pickle in the weeks ahead. And his name is Angus King.


The candidates for an open Senate seat in Maine take part in a debate held Sept. 17. From left are former governor Angus King (I), Secretary of State Charlie Summers (R) and state Sen. Cynthia Dill (D). (Daryn Slover/Associated Press)

King is, for all intents and purposes, the Democratic nominee in the open Maine race where Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) is retiring. The actual Democratic nominee, state Sen. Cynthia Dill, has gotten the cold shoulder from the national Democratic Party and lags far behind in the polls. And most everyone believes that King would caucus with Democrats if he's elected -- although he's been reluctant to say that.

For much of the race, it appeared as though King would sail into office without much resistance.

But despite King's once-sterling personal image, Republicans aren't ceding the race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Chamber of Commerce and another PAC called "Maine Freedom" have spent $1.5 million on behalf of Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers (R) so far, and that spending appears to be be having the desired effect.

Last week, a poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed King's lead, which was once more than 20 points, shrinking to eight points. What's more, King's image has taken a hit, with his favorable rating dropping from 62 percent in March to 52 percent this month. (An automated poll today from Rasmussen, meanwhile, shows King's lead is 12 points.)

If this trajectory holds, King could potentially face a competitive race over the next six weeks. And that would be a big problem for Democrats.

While King is getting bludgeoned on the airwaves, he's got very little to hit back with. His last campaign finance report showed he had just $503,000 cash on hand at the end of June, and it's not easy to raise money as an independent.

In addition, a Portland Press-Herald story published Wednesday detailed some of the problems that are preventing King's campaign from becoming a coronation -- including plenty of second-guessing of its strategy.

In other words, King could really use some air cover. Like now.

The problem is that it would be very difficult for national Democrats to do that. While they haven't embraced Dill, they also haven't endorsed King. They've stayed almost completely silent for the duration of the race, and they wouldn't tell The Fix on Thursday whether they might spend money to help King.

It's not unheard of for Democrats to back independent candidates -- they've done it before with Sens. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut and Bernie Sanders in Vermont -- but King hasn't even said that he would caucus with Democrats. So would Democrats spend money to elect a guy who they aren't 100 percent sure would be on their side in January 2013?

At some point, King and the Democrats could come to an agreement under which he clarifies that he would caucus with them and they would spend money to elect him; that seems like a plausible scenario if things get really hairy.

But even then, the left may be upset that the party isn't supporting its nominee and instead is supporting a guy who openly backed George W. Bush for president in 2000. And King himself, who has made his lack of a political tether the theme of his campaign, could be accused of talking out of both sides of his mouth.

It may never come to that. But right now, it's a distinct possibility.

In what has otherwise been a good couple weeks for outlook of the Democrats' Senate majority, King stands out as a potential headache.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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Sean Sullivan | September 27, 2012