PORTLAND, Maine – Angus King is running for the Senate on a campaign pledge to tell voters how he will vote right after they elect him in November.
The independent candidate, a popular former governor, is the front-runner in the open race for the seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe. He is running a campaign on a platform of changing Congress and resisting partisanship, which is complicated by the fact that senators must align with a party to receive committee assignments and determine control of the chamber.
King won't say before Election Day whether he will align himself with Republicans or Democrats if he wins. “I don't answer that question because I don't know,” King told USA TODAY in an interview.
He said he has had no communication with GOP or Democratic leaders in Washington in a conscious effort to avoid any sign of trying to cut a backroom deal.
Republicans see little chance that King will caucus with them, and the party backs Secretary of State Charles Summers.
“Gov. King is an Obama supporter. I think everybody knows who he would likely caucus with,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who runs the Senate campaign operation.
King said recently that he would vote for President Obama. However, he has also voted for Republicans, including Snowe, and was elected governor twice as an independent.
“I don't know why they're making that assumption,” King said of the GOP's brushoff. “It's all going to depend on what the situation is when I get there, and that will depend to some extent on what the numbers are,” he said, referring to which party is in the majority.
King acknowledged that he could be a decisive vote to determine control. “I might be able to make a pretty good arrangement that will allow me to maintain a significant amount of independence in exchange for one vote, perhaps, to organize the Senate. In other words, if all I have to do is vote once to organize the Senate and establish the majority leader and then I'm a free agent, that might be the way to do it.”
The intrigue has put King in the national spotlight because Maine is a critical state for Democrats in their fight to maintain their majority. Democrats control the Senate 53-47, with two independents, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, aligning with them.
The Democratic campaign operation has not endorsed the party's nominee, state Rep. Cynthia Dill, and has remained silent on King's campaign.
King's record is a leading indicator that he would align with Democrats. For instance, he supports Obama's health care law and said he would have voted for it.
King's decision has become a fixation in Washington.
“There is a 50-50 proposition,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for The Cook Political Report. The consequence of King's decision has been a non-issue in Maine. “There doesn't seem to be a lot of partisan loyalty (in Maine),” Duffy said. “This whole notion of somebody not declaring a party and people not caring, apparently isn't that crazy.”
At a recent “Positive Politics” rally here, King's campaign unveiled a list of 55 campaign co-chairs made up of 25 Democrats, 18 Republicans and 12 independents. “I don't think it's important,” said co-chair Tim Wilson, 71, an independent from Portland who echoed a common response to questions about King's eventual decision: “I don't support parties the way other people do.”
Republicans hope to turn King's decision into a negative, casting it as a self-serving move that undermines his reputation as a straight shooter. King is popular among Democrats, but some voters are torn because there is one on the ballot as well.
“I'm on the fence. I'm a Democrat,” said Donna Parkinson, 58, of Freeport. “I'd really like to see a woman in the Senate, but I have respect for him 100%.”
King has vowed to run a positive campaign with no negative ads, and he has called on outside super PACs to stay out of the race. He said he is running to change Congress because partisans have proved they can't, reflected in Congress's 17% approval rating, according to a recent Gallup Poll.
“My principal issue is the functioning of the Senate,” said King, who aligned himself with No Labels, a non-partisan group that has outlined changes aimed at improving how Congress functions. King backed several of its proposals, including changing the filibuster rule that allows senators to block legislation and fast-tracking the approval process for presidential nominees.
“I'm not arrogant or naive enough to think that one guy from Maine is going to be able to fundamentally change this structure, but I do think you've got to start somewhere, and I do think I can be a catalyst for it,” King said.