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LISBON, Maine — Angus King has the air of a winner.
Sporting a red polo shirt and jeans, reading glasses draped around his neck, the former two-term governor and current Senate frontrunner confidently moves from one side of a crowded parade route to the other. He shakes hands, gives high-fives and poses for quick snapshots.
Attempting to greet all the parade watchers here who yell “Angus!” or “You’ve got our vote!” at him — which, along many stretches of the parade route, seems like everyone — he continually loses his contingent of about 20 young volunteers and staff marching with him.
He greets one middle-aged man along the parade route who lights up interacting with the Independent. “Good morning,” King says with a smile.
Later, in a staccato Maine accent, the man explains people “absolutely” have positive associations with King’s tenure as governor. Asked whether he usually votes Independent, the man pauses, furrows his brow, then says: “For him.”
King, 68, was last elected to office by Maine voters in 1998, but they haven’t forgotten about him.
The response King gets all around the Pine Tree State is like that of some old, beloved hometown prizefighter who has been out of the ring for 14 years but is now staging a comeback.
Republican ads will probably knock him back. But, on the ground here, among voters of all stripes, his reservoir of support appears so deep and the sense that he’s one of them appears so strong, King can probably afford a few missteps and a few thousand gross rating points of negative ads and still win.
Most voters say they have not been paying attention to the Senate race. The Washington, D.C., intrigue about which party King will caucus with seems far away.
A woman and her daughter along the route yell out King’s name. He goes over and quickly shakes their hands.
“He is just so friendly, down-to-earth, very nice,” she says, explaining why Mainers support him.
“He’s, like, a true Mainer,” the daughter adds.
‘Echelon of Trustworthiness’
Two recent independent polls found King at or above 50 percent in a horse-race matchup and leading GOP nominee Charlie Summers — the only serious challenger — by more than 25 points.
“The guy has the luck of the Irish, even with the name Angus King,” quipped a Republican strategist familiar with Maine. “He just gets lucky with the opponents he draws.”
Summers, soft-spoken and easygoing in an interview last week in Augusta, has the résumé of a winner. But that’s not the word one would use to describe his record in bids for federal office. Summers has lost three elections for the 1st district House seat: a primary in 1994 and general elections in 2004 and 2008.
He’s a Navy reservist and has served as a state legislator, a state director for Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), a regional administrator for the Small Business Administration and began serving as secretary of State, a position chosen by the Legislature, in 2011.
Summers, 52, insists the race is primed to change now that the primaries are over and King’s record as governor comes under more scrutiny.
“I do believe that you’ll see the polling change, probably dramatically,” Summers said. “Angus is yesterday’s news. He was governor before the Internet and is almost 70 years old.”
The Internet was actually around for King’s full tenure, but Summers has a point. There is a swath of voters who are not familiar with King since his time in the public eye was so long ago.
At Roy’s All Steak Hamburgers in Auburn, King walks in during breakfast hours to a completely blank stare from the young female cashier. But a moment later, a 20-something waitress bearing a pitcher of coffee chuckles when she spots King.
“I had my picture taken with him when I was in the 7th grade,” she says.
King pushed through a program in his final years in office to give every middle-school student a laptop. Many students who benefited from that program — still in action — are now voters, a point King not-so-subtly makes on more than one occasion.
But King doesn’t have a ready answer about what other gubernatorial accomplishments had similarly lasting effects. He eventually mentions some infrastructure projects.
Summers knocks King’s record. But in interviews with voters here, the substance of King’s tenure has evaporated from their collective memories, leaving only a
“People are content to bask in their still-warm memories of his administration,” Democratic consultant Michael Cuzzi said. “You can reach this point in the psyche of Maine voters where they like you and they trust you. And whether you are a D, an R or an I, you are able to carry the cross-party vote. ... Angus is in that echelon of trustworthiness.”
The King and I
For an independent-leaning state, King’s message of shaking up the sclerotic Washington process resonates.
Political insiders see outside groups as the one possible path to knocking him off his perch.
“The only scenario under which I could see King losing this race is if an outside group comes in and targets him with a lot of independent expenditure money and explains what his real record is,” the GOP strategist said. “Short of that, it’s going to be very difficult for him to be beaten.”
The juggernaut GOP-aligned group American Crossroads and its super PAC affiliate, Crossroads GPS, have not yet spent money in Maine this cycle.
American Crossroads spokesman Nate Hodson said the group is monitoring the race.
“If there is an opportunity for us to help keep that seat Republican, we’ll take that opportunity,” he says.
But looking at previous multicandidate statewide races in Maine, any opportunity for a GOP victory would appear to be premised on the Democrat pulling a significant vote share, and that seems to be a steep order.
Along with Summers, King will face state Sen. Cynthia Dill (D) and a few other Independent candidates on the ballot.
Outside Dill’s back-of-the-house law office in the coastal town of Cape Elizabeth, a breeze carries a hint of the ocean. Dill, 47, has the polish of a local elected official and is articulate in explaining her progressive stances on issues. She admits her path to victory is “somewhat steep,” but she says that for an independent-leaning state, she “represents the independence that Mainers are looking for.”
But asked on which issues she disagrees with the president, Dill flounders. After 20 seconds, she says, “I’m not sure I’m fully on board with the use of drones.”
National Democrats are staying out of the race for now, in no small part because they don’t see a path to victory for Dill.
They also expect King, a Democrat before he was governor, to caucus with them if he comes to Washington.
King says he is an Independent through and through. He insists that neither he nor his staff has made any guarantees about caucusing to anybody.
“No implicit promises, no explicit promises, no discussions,” he says. “This is the caucus equivalent of a Sherman statement.”
It’s tough to be a true Independent in an innately partisan body like the Senate and, when pressed, King acknowledges as much. He says he’ll choose a caucus if he has to be effective.
“I want to stay as independent as I can, as long as I can, up to, but not including, being ineffective,” King said. “I’m not gonna go down and hold a flag in the aisle and make a point. That wouldn’t be fair to Maine.”
And whom he caucuses with may well depend on what he is able to negotiate.
“If it’s 53 to 47, then they won’t be so interested in my vote and that’ll be one kind of negotiation,” King said. “If it’s 50 to 49 to 1, I could be in a pretty amazing position, and, I suspect, could negotiate a pretty good arrangement, respecting my desire to be independent.”
He may well get that chance.