Angus King is the favorite to pick up the open U.S. Senate seat in the state and could become the deciding vote in a closely-divided chamber.
PORTLAND, MAINE -- Angus King is trying to turn back time in this state. I hope he can do the same across the country.
In a speech Saturday morning, the self-made millionaire turned independent politician deftly displayed the qualities that helped him serve as a popular two-term governor here from 1995 to 2003. The 68-year-old hailed Abraham Lincoln, Bill Belichick, Sam Walton and his teenage son in a 30-minute talk that made the audience at the Maine Historical Society's annual meeting howl with laughter. King was a self-deprecating, pragmatic and non-partisan everyman, a character type that flinty and fiercely independent Maine voters have sent to Washington for decades.
But as in the rest of the nation, politics in Maine have dramatically changed in recent years. The state's dynamic new political force is Governor Paul LePage, a take-no-prisoners, Tea Party-backed conservative Republican. Since winning a three-way race for governor with 39 percent of the vote in 2010, LePage has assailed public employee unions, unleashed blistering attacks on his opponents and delighted his conservative Republican base. Like them or not, the Tea Party has out-organized its rivals and gained an out-sized voice.
King, a former Democrat who now rejects both Republican and Democratic dogma, is either an anachronism or a sign that some voters are tiring of partisanship. Keep in mind that a record number of Americans -- 40 percent -- identified themselves as independent in a January Gallup poll; 31 percent identified as Democrats and 27 percent as Republicans.
For now, King is the favorite to win the Senate race. And in one unlikely but possible scenario, he could be the deciding vote in an evenly divided Senate.
A lawyer, businessman and 18-year-host of the Maine public television show "Maine Watch," King's long-shot campaign for governor in 1994 was the first time he had ever run for public office. Bitter partisanship between Democrats and Republicans and a Green Party candidate who drew 6 percent of the vote, helped King eke out a win with 35 percent of the vote. So did the $950,000 that King -- whose alternative energy business boomed at the time -- spent on the race.
In office, King supported abortion rights but opposed increasing the minimum wage. He oversaw the largest increase in conservation lands in Maine's history but opposed regulations supported by environmental groups. And while cutting some taxes, he backed a program that gave every seventh and eighth grade student in the state a laptop computer.
Re-elected in a landslide in 1998, he supported George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential campaign -- "I thought he was a compassionate conservative," King told me in an interview after his Historical Society stemwinder -- but backed John Kerry in 2004. "I didn't like the direction that the Bush administration had taken," he explained, "particularly in starting two wars and tax cuts that weren't funded."
As evidence of his bipartisanship, King's campaign says the bills he proposed during his eight years in office had 891 Democratic sponsors or co-sponsors and 755 Republican sponsors or co-sponsors. His self-described political philosophy is "I call 'em as I see 'em."
More than anything, King is an iconoclast. The day after he completed his second term in office, he, his wife and two youngest children set out on a five-month road trip across the United States. King, a self-described environmentalist, piloted a diesel-burning, 40-foot long RV with a car towed behind for 15,000 miles through 33 states. He also owns a Harley.
Olympia Snowe's surprise February decision to not seek reelection prompted King to enter the race. Her complaint that partisanship had made it impossible to get anything done in Washington is King's battle cry.
The independent argues that average Americans are turning less partisan, not more partisan. "I think we're divided among the people who talk a lot," he said.
As he campaigned, he says, he hears a clear message from 95 percent of voters. "Why can't they talk to each other?," he said, paraphrasing voter questions. "What happened to common sense? Why can't they work together?"
King said he was "neither arrogant enough nor naïve enough" to think he can single-handedly ease Washington's partisanship. But he believes there is a "nascent moderate caucus" of senators from both parties "who realize that things are not going right." In a closely divided Senate, that group could be "very influential."
King will not say which party he will caucus with, if elected, but in this year's presidential election, he is backing Obama. He said Mitt Romney's failure to support the bailout of the auto industry or the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, as well as his hawkish foreign policy advisers, worry him.
At the same time, he opposes some of Obama's signature decisions, including Dodd Frank financial industry regulations, the troop surge in Afghanistan and the president's own failure to embrace Simpson-Bowles as a bipartisan compromise. King said he would have supported the 2009 stimulus and Obamacare as imperfect answers to dire problems.
On the economy, King accuses both parties of embracing false "silver bullets." Liberal calls for increased stimulus spending and conservative calls for tax cuts are not panaceas. He says the government should spend heavily on infrastructure, research and development and education, but end its role there.
"We need the federal government to provide infrastructure and leadership on issues like education and research," he said. "But in the long run the federal government cannot be the creator of jobs."
As both parties become more partisan, according to King, they are driving "whole swathes" of voters to become independents.
"They have essentially purged or otherwise narrowed their bases," he said. "But by doing that they've pushed a lot of people toward the center."
King is leading in the polls and Maine political scientists say the race, for now, is his to lose. But with control of the Senate potentially at stake, both national parties -- and so-called Super PACs -- are expected to savage the Maine independent. King, meanwhile, promises to not run a single negative ad.
Ronald Schmidt, a political science professor at the University of Southern Maine, said that the state's Tea-Party backed governor is creating a new style of politics in Maine. Governor LePage, who is also a deft politician, may be calculating that having a small but highly motivated base may be enough to again defeat a divided opposition. If a centrist like King is going to win Maine's Senate race, Schmidt said, moderates need to be as motivated as Tea Party members.
"Can the moderate Republicans organize themselves that well?" Schmidt asked. "Can the moderate Democrats?"
This year pundits and the media will rightly focus on the presidential race. But elections like this one are hugely important as well. Whether an Obama or Romney administration takes office in January 2013, they will face a dysfunctional Congress unable to enact desperately needed reforms. Sending moderates like King to Washington and ending our poisonous, take-no-prisoners politics is vital.
This state's pragmatic, non-partisan tradition -- and King -- is deeply appealing to me. In November, I hope King still appeals to Maine voters as well.
This article also appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.