If he holds out long enough, Angus King could become a kingmaker.
The insistently independent Senatorial candidate from Maine is adding extra angst to this November's closely contested Congressional elections. The stakes are high; Democrats currently enjoy a slim majority in the Senate, but upcoming elections threaten to tip the balance. A full 33 seats are contested this year, and 23 of those are currently occupied by Democrats. If Republicans can grab just four of those Senate positions, they'll find themselves in control of the upper chamber.
In Maine, all eyes are on the soon-to-be-empty seat of the popular moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe. She announced early this year that she would not be vying for reelection, citing her disappointment over polarization on Capitol Hill as a big reason for her departure.
Her decision kicked off a fiery primary season in Maine, and the candidate who's capturing everyone's attention is neither a Democrat nor a Republican... at least, not yet.
King, 68, served as Maine's governor for two terms. He claims he voted for George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential elections. But lately, he says, the GOP is heading in the wrong direction. The shift of the Republican Party to the right, particularly on social issues, is disturbing. It's somewhat ironic to me that people who wrap themselves in the Constitution are so prepared to put the government in people's bedrooms, he told AP.
King supports Obama's health care overhaul, has spoken in favor of contraceptive insurance, and is critical of Republican Representative Paul Ryan's divisive budget plan.
An April report from the Maine People's Resource Center shows that King is the front-runner by a long shot. In a hypothetical three-way contest against front-runners from both parties, King would win a full 56 percent of the vote. As many liberals feared, he has siphoned off much of the electorate's support for Democratic candidates.
Some analysts cautioned last month that the independent candidate could divide the liberal vote and allow for a Republican victory, but it appears that won't be the case -- King is well-positioned not to split the vote, but to steal it.
Among the registered Democrat candidates, the front-runner is a woman named Cynthia Dill; she'll face off against Matt Dunlap and others during June primaries. Her election would be a victory not only for liberals, she argues, but also for women. Currently, both of Maine's Senate seats are occupied by females: Snowe and Republican Susan Collins, who is not up for reelection until 2014. If King won Snowe's position, it would be the first time a man has occupied that seat since 1995.
Dill is trying to convince voters not to let that happen. Even though her politics match up with King's on a range of issues, she has argued that he does not have the personal experience to serve Maine's women as well as she can.
He and I live very different lives, she said to AP. I have right now, two kids in high school, that I get up for in the morning and make their breakfast and make their lunch and do their grocery shopping. And I gave birth to them.
Dill has called for King to declare his political leanings, even organizing a petition in March. Maine voters deserve to know who their next U.S. Senator is going to support to lead the Senate, she said. Her petition got over 1,000 signatures, but King is still playing it coy.
I want to keep 'em guessing, he said to AP on Monday. I think I can be much more effective by not making that decision and by postponing it as long as possible. I'd like to postpone it forever.
Should King make it all the way to the Senate, Maine will likely have to wait until after the election to know which caucus he will join. He has hinted that he may simply sign up with whichever side wins the most Senate seats in November. By joining the majority party, said King, he would be better able to serve Maine's interests.
There's also a chance that the balance of power after November's Senate race will come down to a single seat. If that happens and King is still undeclared, his decision could determine which side takes leadership of Congress's upper chamber for at least the next two years.
Some call him opportunistic, but King reserves the right to avoid picking sides just yet. The ultimate goal, he contends, is to protect moderate interests in an increasingly bipartisan government. I represent a threat, he said during an interview with Politico. If it can happen in Maine, it can happen in other places. And they need to start looking toward the middle, instead of always toward the right or the left.