The worst-kept secret of Maine politics is finally out of the bag, as independent U.S. Sen. Angus King waded into the Maine gubernatorial race, endorsing his friend and fellow independent Eliot Cutler. The fact that virtually everybody knew this was coming — not only did King endorse Cutler in 2010, but Cutler returned the favor in 2012 — lessened the surprise value, but not the impact. That will be determined in the coming weeks as we begin to enter the home stretch of the gubernatorial race.
Of course, King’s support having an outsize impact is nothing new. In 2002, when John Baldacci and Peter Cianchette were battling to replace him (in what was almost a straight-up two-way race for the Blaine House), both candidates sought his support. In that case, rather than diving into the campaign and securing his legacy even further through a chosen successor, he opted to sit out the race. He would do the same in 2006, despite the presence of a strong independent candidate in the form of Barbara Merrill.
During his time in the Blaine House, King mostly didn’t meddle in state legislative races or in federal campaigns, with his endorsement of George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential race being a rare exception. Mostly, his nods have come since serving as governor — and until very recently, they’ve only been for presidential candidates, like John Kerry, Bush and Barack Obama.
King’s late boosting of Cutler in 2010 marked a return of sorts to state politics for him, but it wasn’t his only endorsement that year. He also threw his weight behind state Rep. Alex Cornell du Houx (which one suspects he rather regrets), then running for re-election in the Maine House, and Chellie Pingree, who was running for re-election to the U.S. House. Even so, his endorsements were limited and — except for Cutler — local. This increased activity has continued apace in 2014, as he’s endorsed his Senate colleagues Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jeane Shaheen, D-New Hampshire.
The question of value in the King endorsement remains an open one, as he has a mixed record. He’s picked winners more often than losers, but he’s also rarely (if ever) gotten heavily involved in campaigns other than his own. With Cutler, he has a chance to make a real impact on a race beyond being merely another name on a long list of supporters.
The worth of King’s support for Cutler will be in how much he actually does for Cutler — which can’t be measured in one video. As a two-term governor and freshmen senator who’s won three statewide elections, King has a deep and extensive network of donors and supporters. While many of them have already signed up with Michaud or LePage, there are many remaining on the sideline or donating to multiple candidates.
The difference in value of an endorsement can be seen in the country’s most well-known independent politician: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s previously supported Angus King. Bloomberg has been getting involved in elections around the country, and elected officials at all levels know that his endorsement comes with a lot of real support. He may not always win, but he always makes a true difference in a campaign, well beyond just a momentary headline.
King has the chance here to prove that his endorsement carries real weight in Maine politics. If he campaigns with Cutler in the future, helps him raise money, and does ads for him, he’ll be showing he is truly committed to getting Cutler elected. If, however, this endorsement isn’t carried forward properly, King will have missed a huge opportunity to enhance his own legacy and prove his influence on state politics outside his own campaigns.