KENNEBUNK, Maine — Former independent governor Angus King strolled into a barbershop, an insurance agency, and a pub on a recent afternoon, reintroducing himself to voters, one handshake at a time, in his bid for a US Senate seat.
But those introductions ignored the one thing most people want to know: would King caucus with Senate Democrats or Republicans if he wins?
That question — made more pressing by a poll that shows him well ahead in the crowded field — is causing a stir from Augusta to Washington, where Republicans are seeking to snatch Senate control from Democrats in 2012.
Republicans are alleging a “backroom deal’’ between King and Democrats - one that would have King winning the seat as an independent with support from both parties, only to reveal his Democratic intentions once he takes the seat now held by Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican who is retiring.
King, who was a popular two-term governor, denies any Democratic collusion and emphasizes his independence. But he appears to relish the mystery surrounding him.
“I know I’m walking around with a target on my back,’’ King said as he campaigned in Kennebunk. “I’m the greatest threat to both parties because I’m unpredictable on the issues, and they know they can’t get their hooks into me.’’
King would pass a general Democratic litmus test: He is prochoice on abortion, supports gay marriage, backs President Obama’s health care law, and opposes GOP efforts to transform Medicare into a voucher program. Indeed, he has endorsed Obama for reelection.
But he insists that he has conservative values when it comes to fiscal responsibility. “I think you should have a ‘pay-as-you-go’ system,’’ he said.
Also, he supports gun rights and endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 (although not for reelection).
At a Portland diner, after lunching on an egg sandwich and chips, King was greeted by one voter who vowed to support him. “Governor, I don’t care who you caucus with. You’ve got my vote.’’
It’s a nonissue, King insists. He will choose sides only when he must, he said.
“I haven’t made up my mind, and I won’t until I get down there,’’ he said.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, a campaign arm of the party, is scrambling to avoid the potential loss of a seat caused by Snowe’s surprise announcement in February that she plans to retire.
Rob Jesmer, the fund-raising group’s executive director, accused national Democratic leaders of pushing aside high-profile Democrats, such as Representative Chellie Pingree, a close friend of King, from running.
“This is just the latest backroom deal we’ve seen from national Democrats and it adds to the cynicism that voters in Maine and around the country rightfully feel toward those running Washington these days,’’ Jesmer said last month.
King agrees there is plenty of cynicism about Washington but insists his streak of independence and varied background could be an antidote. Before being elected governor in 1994, King had founded an environmental conservation company and served as host of a public affairs television program in Maine.
With an agenda that balanced environmentalism and probusiness initiatives, he rode a strong regional economy to an overwhelming reelection victory in 1998 - his vote total almost doubled that of the combined Democratic and Republican challengers. He developed a reputation among voters as an easy-going and unflappable manager, adept, even then, at tapping into voters’ disgust with partisanship.
His signature accomplishment was pushing Maine to become the first state to provide laptops to every seventh- and eighth-grader in its public schools, the centerpiece of his effort to eliminate the “digital divide’’ between wealthy and poor children.
Term limits prevented a third run.
Six Republicans and four Democrats are hoping to prevail in their respective primaries in June in order to face King in November.
One Republican, Scott D’Amboise, a little-known member of a Tea Party group, Maine Patriots, entered the race even before Snowe announced her retirement. He was seeking to rally other conservatives against her moderate record.
After Snowe announced she would not seek another term, in part because she had grown frustrated with Washington’s incessant partisanship, five Republicans announced bids to succeed her. The candidates include the state’s attorney general, William Schneider, and its secretary of state, Charles Summers. The national party took the unusual step of giving each of the five GOP candidates $5,000 to help them collect signatures to qualify for the June 12 primary.
Snowe, who has occasionally been met with a chorus of boos at events packed by her party’s right wing, pointedly said she would not automatically endorse the Republican nominee.
Four Democrats were already in the race to boot Snowe from office, but since her announcement, no other Democrat has jumped in, ostensibly because King is in the race. Matt Dunlap, a former secretary of state, is the favorite among many of the state’s Democratic leaders, although Cynthia Dill, a liberal state senator, is considered a contender.
Whoever emerges from each primary faces a daunting task. A poll released this month from the Maine People’s Resource Center found King would win 67 percent of the vote if the election were held today, with Summers garnering 22 percent and Dunlap 12 percent.
Part of the Republicans’ strategy has been to align King with Democrats, in hopes of drawing votes from conservative independents away from him.
“The Republicans are probably going to spend a lot of money to keep this seat,’’ said Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party. “The Democratic candidate definitely starts out as an underdog, but this race is not going to be won in April.’’
Maine politics have always been unpredictable, as evidenced two years ago when another three-way race narrowly gave the governor’s mansion to a Tea-Party Republican, Paul LePage, who, up to then, was not well known.
“It’s an unusual race, but Maine is a pretty unusual place politically,’’ said Kenneth Palmer, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Maine.
King’s two terms as governor are fondly remembered by many voters. As he strolls through main streets across the state, King often finds that people reach out to shake his hand before he gets the chance to reintroduce himself.
Said Amy Fried, another political science professor at the University of Maine: “Once Maine people have an attachment to someone, it remains pretty strong.’’ And, she adds, “people in Maine love this independent thing.’’