Maine Senate candidates Dill, King and Summers have opportunities

With the party nominations set for Maine Senate, the campaign provides major opportunities for each of the candidates.

The greatest of these opportunities is becoming a U.S. Senator, being a member of what is sometimes called the world’s most exclusive club.

In my view, King remains the favorite, even the prohibitive favorite. That’s because he is highly respected and trusted and, in Maine’s political culture, this creates a dynamic where it’s very hard for others to undermine their standing.

Moreover, King is a very smart campaigner. He hasn’t sat around, waiting.

Since announcing his candidacy, he’s gotten the campaign off the ground, building an organization – with a very strong virtual presence – and with a pool of highly competent staffers and energized volunteers.

Along with money and organization, King has a message.  This includes independence/civility/fixing the Senate, which, as I’ve said before, raises a prospect that can’t be fulfilled, since one person can’t change the Senate as an institution.

However, Maine people do prize civility and independence and pragmatism, and those can be achieved by a senator, and so this is a very good message for King, especially good because it is believable when it comes to the man. It fits his character and reputation.

King combines his messaging with his strategy smarts. Today, the day after the primary, he asked his opponents to turn away SuperPACs working on their behalf, with the promise to do so himself if they did. Americans don’t like Citizens United and Mainers have embraced public financing. King took over part of the news cycle they could have owned, demonstrated he is not waiting around for a coronation, and pushed his message about the political process. It was very well done.

But this is not King’s only message. Among other emphases, he is talking about the future, about technology, about what Maine and America should build in order to get where we should go. For example, King touts rural broadband, in a lovely way, tying it both to America’s past and its path forward. This, too, is believable coming from King. He’s talked about such issues for years. Indeed, messaging works best when it’s consistent with the messenger’s record.

Having a great message and a reputation that’s led to high levels of trust and an excellent campaign, well, those are at least part of why King is a very formidable opponent. He’s also helped by what happened in 2010, when the vote was split such that Paul LePage was elected Governor, so that now those who don’t support Gov. LePage are very wary about splitting the vote in this race.

Now all this doesn’t mean King will definitely win. Dill or Summers might win.

But whoever loses has opportunities, depending on how the campaign goes.

Let’s say King wins and Dill and Summers lose. 

Each of these candidates is certainly young enough to run again.  When Susan Collins ran her first state-wide campaign, in 1994, she came in third. (This was King’s first race for governor.) But then she ran for Senate two years later and won.

Whether they can put themselves in the position to run state-wide again depends on how they run their races.

Given King’s advantages, fundraising may be a real challenge.

Summers may find it easier because of the huge amount of money coming from Republican supporting SuperPACs. But if he pursues the approach that those groups support — to go really hard after King — Summers may undermine his own reputation and standing. And what is his reputation in the state’s general electorate right now? Probably what most Maine people know about his work as Secretary of State is that he supported ending election day registration and he went after students in a way many found questionable.

If he runs a campaign Maine people see as nasty (and the threshold for this can be very low when it comes to candidates who are trusted and seen having dignity and independence), Summers risks being branded as mean and uncivil. Now, that risk may certainly be worth it to him. After all, it’s possible that he could win that way. Moreover, a number of people in his party base will want him to do so and he could undermine his reputation with them if he doesn’t push hard. But it is still a risk when it comes to his standing with the general electorate.

Dill also has a substantial opportunity. She is not well known in the state right now and her base is in the southern part of Maine.  Her rhetoric has sometimes been harsh. Given her positions on guns and a northern Maine national park, she has very real challenges in rural areas.

But she also has an obvious commitment to public policy on behalf of the people.

Whatever you think of her views and policy positions, it’s clear that Dill’s web site is the most policy-oriented of the three candidates — no question.  Moreover, she spells out policy views in detail and with logic.

Summers, who has some policy statements on his web site, has very little detail and his presentations read like party talking points, so that you don’t know if that’s all he really thinks or if there is more there there.  King’s site has some policy content and what he presents is beautifully written and contains real depth, but there are not a lot of issues addressed.

If Dill can gain a statewide reputation for being a policy wonk, thoughtful and creative, this could be a path to victory. But again, even if she should lose — and she doesn’t come off as mean or uncivil, she’s in a better place to run another time, or even to take an executive position or a high level leadership position for a nonprofit or political organization.  These can provide even greater opportunity. In fact, we might call this the Chellie Pingree path. Pingree lost to Susan Collins in 2002, went off to DC to run Common Cause, and then came back to Maine to run for Congress and win her seat.

If King loses, well, he can continue all that he has been doing. He probably won’t run for office again. But he’ll have a book to write and a national presence and following that will better enable him to spread his message.

So the day after the primaries, a lot is uncertain. While, again, King is certainly the favorite, someone else may win. But whoever wins, the losers, depending on how they acted, could put themselves in a strong position for their own futures.

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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.