For a state long known for its quirky politics, the race to replace longtime Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe is living up to the legacy. And thanks to the tight political calculus in Washington for control of the House and Senate, the race has taken on national implications.
The race currently is former governor Angus King's to lose, according to recent polling as well as state political insiders.
"Angus King is certainly the front-runner out there right now, I don't think there's any doubt about that," says Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. "The real key here can be found in the way in which Maine people see Angus King even now years after he's held public office."
A former two-term Independent first elected governor in 1994, King's brand of social liberalism and amicable approach to problem-solving combined with presiding over a good local economy has made him one of the most popular politicians in Maine history.
His decision to enter the fray likely stopped in its tracks a seemingly imminent bid by Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat favored by progressives.
A handful of Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to make the cut, but the race's final landscape will remain largely unresolved until the March 15th deadline for party candidates to get on the ballot. Former Democratic Maine Gov. John Baldacci, who replaced King in office after the 2002 election, is also exploring a potential run at the seat, but a spokesman said he will remain mum on his final decision until his contract with the U.S. Department of Defense runs out. Baldacci is currently serving in Washington as a health care consultant for the department.
Brewer says Republicans would love to see Baldacci run for the Democrats, thereby splitting the progressive vote in two.
"The Republicans want a strong Democratic candidate," he says. "If the Republican party organizations believe that there could be this splitting of the Democratic vote and the left-leaning un-enrolled voters, then they would be more likely to pump money in because then maybe they think they can kind of steal the seat with someone getting 40 percent of the vote."
But Baldacci has been disappointed by the lack of encouragement from national party leadership for his potential run, sources say. He left office after eight years with an approval rating in the 30's, having held office during a down economy. And Republicans are charging that national Democrats are cool to potential top-tier candidates like Baldacci because they fear the potential vote-splitting that Brewer refers to.
"Obviously we're observing the increasing awkwardness on the Democratic side where their leadership has seemed to rally behind Angus King, ignoring the fact that there are several Democrats who are preparing to run as well," says Brian Walsh of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "They have made the calculation that Angus King is for all intents and purposes their candidate."
The NRSC has also accused their Democratic counterpart of making a "backroom deal" with King to provide tacit if not overt support for his candidacy with the promise that he will caucus with them after winning election.
It's a charge that King's camp strongly denies.
"He has not been approached by Democrats or Republicans," says Crystal Canney, King's spokeswoman. "There's a lot of silliness out there right now around that issue, but he's been very clear. No backroom deals, he's running as an independent candidate and he will not decide who or if he will caucus with anyone until much later."
Democrats currently control the Senate with a 53-47 advantage, but election forecasters project the balance could flip with several very close battles in states like Montana, Nevada, Virginia, Massachusetts and now Maine.
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