The decision of former Gov. Angus King (above) to run as an Independent led Rep. Chellie Pingree to forgo her own bid for the seat of retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe. Sources said Pingree didnt want to split the vote with King and give the GOP a victory.
Senate Democratic leaders were not forthcoming about the extent of their involvement, if any, in recruiting King to run or securing any commitment from him to caucus with their party. But Democratic operatives and top Republicans said they expect King to join the Democratic Conference if he is elected in November. Before King became an Independent, he identified as a Democrat.
NRSC Executive Director Rob Jesmer accused Democrats of cutting a "backroom deal" with King, but Canney strongly denied the accusation.
"There's absolutely no deal," Canney said. "I couldn't be more firm about that."
Only a week ago, Pingree's candidacy seemed almost a sure bet.
"Chellie Pingree saw polling that said she was going to have a very hard time beating King and could instead hand the race to the GOP, so she made the decision on her own to drop out," a Democratic strategist said.
"There's a chance she could have beat him, but she did not want to lose her House seat," one state Democratic operative said.
But the Senate math is what weighed heavily on the party, and Maine Democrats are haunted by the 2010 three-way gubernatorial race. A Democratic candidate and an Independent candidate split voters, and tea-party-aligned Gov. Paul LePage emerged as the winner.
Pingree was a favorite with the liberal base, and the reaction from interest groups and state Democrats was generally positive.
Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee issued a statement acknowledging the political reality of the race.
"Angus King was willing to create a three-way race that handed this Senate seat to a far-right Republican," he said. "Chellie Pingree's decision was based on what is best for the people of Maine and the future of progressive causes, not based on what was best for herself."
Despite his popularity, King still faces obstacles as an Independent. Political strategists question how much money he can personally commit to the race and how an Independent can win a Senate race without a national party apparatus behind him.
But one unaligned state political strategist brushed off the financial considerations.
"With Chellie out, the price tag of this race just went down $3 [million] to $6 million," he said.
As for the Republican side, three major contenders have taken the first steps toward launching campaigns: Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and state Attorney General William Schneider.
Schneider rented out Snowe's email list and sought petition signatures, and one other campaign has inquired about doing the same.
"We're talking to several candidates because we were scrambling to try to make sure that we could get one or more candidates to qualify for the ballot. That's sort of where we are now," Cornyn said. "It's getting kind of curious. The most likely candidate to run as a Democrat has now folded her tent and is not running."
Both parties also expressed concern about the impending filing deadline of March 15. The compact timeline between Snowe's announcement and the deadline has led some to seriously wonder whether it is realistic for all of the serious candidates to obtain the 2,000 petitions needed to get on the primary ballot.
King has an extended deadline because he is not seeking a party nomination.