August 20, 2012

Here’s a message to the GOP from Vacationland: Maine is not lost!

When Sen. Olympia Snowe announced her retirement last year, many Republicans wrote Maine off — and with it their chances of taking back the U.S. Senate. At the start of July, a Portland Press Herald poll showed independent former governor Angus King with a 28-point lead over his closest rival, Republican Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers (Democratic state Sen. Cynthia Dill came in third with 7 percent).

But then the Friends of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce got into the race, launching an ad campaign that declared the former governor the “King of Spending” and the “King of Mismanagement.”

“When King was governor, state spending skyrocketed to $2.6 billion,” the ad declared to the tune of medieval music. “When King left office, he left Maine with a $1 billion budget shortfall. Declare your independence from this king.”

Result: After just two weeks, King’s lead over Summers dropped 10 points.

The chamber ad was likely a test to see if King’s armor could be pierced. It worked. And the effort revealed several things: First, King is more vulnerable than imagined. The more Mainers learn about how he dramatically increased the size of government and turned the surplus he inherited into a billion-dollar fiscal hole, the less they like him.

Second, Maine is a cheap state in which to run. This is not California or Florida. It cost the chamber just $400,000 to saturate the airwaves on every network in the state during the Olympic Games and bring the front-runner down 10 points. A small investment can make a huge difference in Maine.

Third, Republicans have an attractive alternative to King. Charlie Summers is a proven winner at the polls with crossover appeal. He was the first Republican ever elected to represent Maine’s Democratic-leaning 31st Senate District, and he won statewide in 2010 when he was elected Maine’s secretary of state. He is a small-business owner and former Small Business Administration official who knows how to create jobs. Moreover, Summers is a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and worked for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the opening of the GOP Victory Center here in Westbrook, Summers told me, “King loves to say ,‘I don’t know who I’m going to caucus with, I don’t know if I’m going to take a committee assignment.’ Well, what about the guy who works at Bath Iron Works and builds Navy ships and may not have somebody on the Armed Services Committee if King is elected?”

The next line of attack will likely center on crony capitalism. As governor, King signed a law requiring Maine utilities to produce at least 30 percent of their energy from renewable sources such as wind — and then, after leaving office, moved quickly to profit from the mandate he enacted by forming a wind energy business. He secured a $102 million taxpayer-backed loan guarantee from the same Obama Energy Department program that backed Solyndra. A House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigation found that King and his partners should not have gotten the federal loan guarantee because they already had sufficient capital to build the project. So why seek federal money? Summers argues it is because the loan guarantee transferred the risk for the wind project from King and his partners to the American taxpayer. “He got a Solyndra-type loan and put the taxpayers on the hook,” Summers said. He pointed out that Maine taxpayers just had a rate increase to pay for augmented transmission lines to handle King’s wind energy project — this in a state where high energy costs are already deterring businesses from moving and investing here.

Bottom line: King profited from a law he passed as governor, took taxpayer money he did not need from President Obama’s discredited “Green Energy” loan program and personally benefited from Obama’s failed stimulus spending bill. That’s a political trifecta. In addition to being the “King of Spending,” look for Republicans to crown the former governor as the “King of Wind” and the “King of Cronyism.”

Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s political director, says the chamber is all in. “Maine will be a battleground state. It will help determine the majority of the U.S. Senate,” he told me. “Conventional wisdom originally was that this wasn’t a real race. I can tell you from being there — this is a real race. The more we’ve been involved the more the race closes. And the more others get involved, the more the race will continue to close.”

If they don’t get involved, and Republicans come up one seat short of taking back the Senate, they will be kicking themselves in November.