Maine voters know that King voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and plans to vote for President Obama in 2012. What they don’t know is whether their independent senator would align himself more with Republicans or with Democrats, and that has added an overlay of Washington intrigue to the contest.
“My desire is to be as independent as I can be, as long as I can be, subject to being effective,” King said. “I’m not going just for symbolism. I want to do something.”
First, he must win, and he’s betting that an appeal to the even-tempered middle can trump the partisan passions that animate the extremes in both parties.
“I’m more convinced than when I announced that I’m on the right track,” King said. “Everywhere I go in Maine . . . it’s all they want to talk about. They want me to go down there and talk some sense into those people — go down there and make it work.”
With the balance of power in the Senate decided by a close margin, King’s unwillingness to commit to one side or the other has scrambled the calculus in Washington and brought him a lot of attention.
“I’ve come to realize that an unencumbered U.S. senator is a profound threat to the whole system,” he said. “It’s somebody that they can’t put in a box and say, ‘Oh, well, we know how this guy is going to vote.’ That has raised the stakes, frankly.”
And the stakes were already pretty high.
Leading the race
On Tuesday, six Republicans and four Democrats will face off in Maine’s Senate primaries. But polls show that King, who as an independent won’t be on Tuesday’s ballot, has a wide lead over any of his potential challengers in the general-election race to succeed the retiring Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R).
Democrats control the Senate on the strength of a slim three-seat majority, and Republicans have a good chance of picking up the four seats they need to take control of the chamber. If that happens, and if the GOP can hang on to its majority in the House, it would significantly alter the political landscape in Washington for a reelected Obama or a newly elected Mitt Romney.
Snowe upended the Republican takeover plans in February with her decision not to seek reelection, and her reasons for leaving the Senate converge with King’s rationale for trying to replace her. Snowe cited “an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies.”
After her decision, King, 68, quickly jumped into the race and rocketed to the top of the polls, fueled by his name recognition, high approval ratings and anti-partisan message.
Snowe clearly admires King’s strategy. “I think that people have to reward those individuals who are prepared to work across the political aisle,” she said last week. “I don’t see any other way; if you don’t talk to people with whom you disagree, you’re never going to solve problems.”