Now it’s candidate King

Former Governor Angus King has announced he is running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Olympia Snowe. How strong a candidate is he and why?

King starts with some core strengths: He is well-known by Maine voters, having been Governor for eight years. While he won his first term with a plurality, he won big the second time, with 59%, the last time Maine’s governor has been elected with a majority.

Moreover, Gov. King is an excellent communicator. In my observations, I have found him to be smart, knowledgable about domestic public policy, thoughtful, and civil.  (See disclosure at the bottom of this post.)

However, whatever the initial polls show — and hints from Public Policy Polling suggests there is much positive — this is still very early in the process.

Last week, some national analysts declared the race as very likely to go Democratic and Maine GOP Chair told a reporter that Republicans would win by recreating the dynamics of the 2010 gubernatorial race. They were premature and so are those who suggest King will surely win.

For one, while King was popular when he left office, that was a little over nine years ago. Maine people remember him as governor, framed by the positions and circumstances of the time, with a robust economy for much of it.

Public Policy Polling teased its weekend Maine poll today. One initial finding is that 62% view him favorably while 24% see him unfavorably. (Hmmm….62%. That sounds familiar, almost like 61% — the amount received by all gubernatorial candidates facing Paul LePage.) Their full poll match-ups will be released Tuesday morning and other polls will come along soon.

March 6 update: See full PPP Polls data.

Those favorabilities are based on people’s memories. But when faced with today’s issues, it’s unclear how King would do. To be sure, the world has not completely changed since he left office. But he would need to deal with today’s conditions, today’s federal budget, and today’s foreign policy (an area in which he has no experience in elective office). With a crowded 2012 ballot, he will be asked which candidates he endorses and which Maine ballot measures. Each of these provides opportunities and risks.

One of the circumstances that will come to frame people’s views of the election is the last big Maine election — the 2010 Governor’s race. Having had Paul LePage win the Governorship is pretty important to a lot of the 61% who did not vote for him. Mr. King will need to respond both to the policy environment highlighted in the state and nation — and to the possibility that he could lead to the election of most people’s least-liked candidate.

Moreover, a generic argument against intense partisanship is likely to face some challenges. On the one hand, it may sink in that a single person cannot reverse shifts in the Senate that are due to structural, long-term shifts. Not to be too glib, but Mitch McConnell, the leader of Senate Republicans, will not suddenly start singing “hakunu matada” or “kumbaya” if Maine elects an Independent Senator. And while citizens often think, “why can’t we all get along?,” when faced with particular controversial issues, they discover that they don’t want to split the difference.

Some have ventured that King could be very important in the Senate because he will be a swing vote, like Snowe. Not only does this misrepresent Senator Snowe’s record — in most cases, she voted with her party and in the last year or so she voted to uphold nearly every filibuster — it is based on a picture of the Senate to be seated in 2013 that simply may not exist. No one knows how the Senate will shift and whether one vote will matter all that much.

In addition, the Senate is organized by party. Committee assignments are based on each party’s share of Senate seats. King will be under pressure to declare with whom he would caucus. That initial PPP poll found that 51% of King supporters want him to caucus with Democrats — but that choice could turn off other supporters. And if he doesn’t say with whom he would caucus, this could make him appear evasive or might simply raise uncertainty, undermining some support.

And, while King is sharp and healthy, he is nearly 68 years old. This makes it unlikely that he will stay in the Senate long enough to build the seniority and relationships on which effectiveness often depends. With that is the fact that younger voters do not have the memories of King on which his current standing is based. If they have an impression of him, it is more gauzy and thus more easily changed by the coming campaign.

Since leaving office, King has had a fairly low public profile. Of his recent ventures, he is most known for his involvement with a wind power venture that is controversial in some quarters.

Ultimately, King’s strengths and weaknesses as a candidate will be seen once the other candidates are picked and the campaign is in full swing.  As the author of a book that paid a lot of attention to the 1948 presidential race, I must point out that the pundits and pollsters wrote off Harry Truman’s chances of winning and they were famously, no infamously, wrong.

Maine’s political environment includes many currents, buffeting both Republicans and Democrats, and these will not leave candidate King untouched.

This Senate race has a long, long time to go ’til we reach November.


Disclosure: My close-up observations of former Governor King are based in our involvement in a program called Maine Policy Scholars, which was started by publisher Peter Cox and is now overseen by the Maine Community Foundation. The program supports one student from each of the University of Maine System campuses, each of whom works with a faculty member. I am the faculty advisor for the University of Maine’s Policy Scholar. The full group meets three times a year and Gov. King has been involved for about seven years, I believe. As part of my dossier for promotion from Associate Professor to Professor, a step based on evaluating my research, teaching, and service, Gov. King wrote a letter regarding the quality of my contributions to this program.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.