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Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) announced her retirement last month, citing partisanship in Washington, D.C., and now one of the candidates vying to replace her, former Gov. Angus King (I), says he’s not ready to choose a party at all.
With a Thursday deadline for candidates to file in Maine, King’s decision to run for the seat but not divulge with whom he might caucus has thrown another wrinkle of intrigue into the unexpectedly interesting race.
“I have not made up my mind whatsoever. A lot will depend on what the numbers are and depend upon what the actual circumstances are,” King told a Bangor television station over the weekend. “My judgment’s going to be based on what would make me most effective on behalf of Maine.”
It’s unclear whether “circumstances” means the breakdown of individual Senate votes, or the math in the Senate itself, with Republicans hoping to take back the majority and Democrats fighting to retain it. But in a town where everyone has to pick sides, King will eventually have to select a party to caucus with, even if he chooses to maintain his “Independent” label.
There is little precedent for Independent Senators to remain a caucus of one. According to the Senate Historical Office, only one Senator, Dean Barkley of Minnesota, has ever entered the chamber as an Independent and declined to caucus with either party.
Barkley was appointed by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura to replace the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) in November 2002, and the Senate was only in session for one week before his term ended on Jan. 3, 2003.
Senators have to choose a caucus if they want seats on committees, which are doled out at the beginning of each Congress by each party’s leadership. In 1952, incumbent Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse left the GOP in protest of Dwight Eisenhower’s selection of Richard Nixon as his running mate.
When the 1952 elections left almost a completely divided Senate, Morse famously put a folding chair in the middle of the Senate’s center aisle as a sign of his independence from Republicans and Democrats. Morse, however, was stripped of his committee assignments and a vote of the full Senate did not restore them. Morse ultimately joined the Democrats at the urging of Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas), who then became Majority Leader with a one-vote advantage.
In today’s Senate, where a 60-vote filibuster threshold is much more common than the traditional 51-vote majority, there might not be an incentive to stay neutral.