With the recent surprise announcement that Maine's three-term Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe will not seek re-election this year, the race for her coveted seat has blown wide open. Republicans and Democrats are both counting on a victory in what is shaping up to be a pitched battle for control of the U.S. Senate. But there's a potential spoiler to the party planning: former independent Gov. Angus King.
King has been retired from politics for nearly a decade, but the two-term governor still has the kind of approval rating most politicians dream about: 62 percent, according to one recent poll.
Now, at almost 68, he has decided he wants to run for Senate as an independent. That same poll from a Democratic polling firm gives him the lead in a potential three-way race against a Republican and a Democratic candidate. King says that if he wins, he might help break the partisan gridlock that's been gripping Congress.
"I don't have any illusions that I'm naively going to go down and [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid and [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell are going to say, 'Angus, tell us how to do this,' " King says. "I mean, I know that's not going to work. But I think, No. 1, my election would send a significant message and, No. 2, it might provoke similar movements in other states. If there were four or five people like me, that would change the whole dynamic."
From RV Road Trip To Senate Campaign
When he first ran for governor in 1994, King was a largely unknown lawyer and part-time public television talk show host who had amassed a small fortune working in alternative energy and conservation. As governor, he was probably best-known for championing a program that provides laptops for students.
More recently, King has been working on wind power development and teaching a popular course on leaders and leadership at Bowdoin College. He rides a Harley-Davidson and has written a book about his family's five-month odyssey traveling the country in an RV. According to Kay Rand, his former chief of staff, King was planning a second road trip just a few days before Snowe announced she wouldn't run again.
"He was proudly showing me the pictures of the RV," Rand says. "Never once did a conversation about elected office come up. Not once."
When King did decide to run, Rand says she was right there with him â€” she'd take a leave of absence from her job to work as his campaign manager.
"He still doesn't know whether he's going to be able to make a difference, but he has to try," she says.
A Coalition-Building Independent
King hasn't yet gathered the required signatures to ensure a place on Maine's ballot, but his intentions are already drawing fire from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. King has been coy about saying whether he would caucus with Democrats or Republicans in Washington, and while he says he would prefer to go it alone, the NRSC isn't buying it. King did endorse President Obama, after all, and no other big-name Democrat is expected to get into the race.
In a recent online ad, Republicans accused King of cutting a secret deal with the Democrats to run for Snowe's seat. "Maine deserves better than smoke-filled backroom deals," the ad says.
"It's total bunk," King says.
According to King, the ad only proves his point that the status quo in Washington has to be challenged. As an independent governor who had a Democratic-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate, King became adept at forming coalitions to pass legislation, says former Republican state Sen. Phil Harriman.
"I think what's going to be interesting for people who watch this race to see is can Angus King make the transition from the chief executive officer of the state to one of a hundred legislators where it's a whole different mindset?" Harriman says.
The Thinking Person's Politician
King tends to be fiscally conservative. As governor, he vetoed several Democratic-backed labor bills, including one to raise the minimum wage. He's more liberal on social issues, like abortion rights and same-sex marriage. And he knows how to grab headlines â€” he once dived into a river fully clothed during a news conference to announce a pollution cleanup plan.
But according to Maine's former Democratic House Speaker Mike Saxl, the most important thing to know about King is that he's a thinking person's politician who also happens to have the gift of gab.
"He can effectively communicate complicated ideas in a rather straightforward way, and that's a huge asset when you're working in politics," Saxl says.
As an independent, King will need those assets, especially if he is to prevail in a U.S. Senate race that's already lining up to be one of the most watched in the country, and one of the most expensive in Maine history.