WBUR

Mainers Could Decide The Senate’s Balance Of Power

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s tremendously popular senator, Olympia Snowe, has decided to retire. Like the other senator from Maine, Susan Collins, Snowe is a Republican famous for crossing the aisle to work with Democrats. She has cited the poisonous partisan atmosphere in Washington as her main reason for withdrawing from public service.

Portland’s waterfront is teeming with tourists, and the bustle gives the impression the city is doing well economically. Conversations with Mainers reveal that unlike much of the country, they are optimistic about Southern Maine’s economic prospects.

Becky's Diner, on Commercial Street in Portland, Maine, draws lots of locals for breakfast. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Becky's Diner, on Commercial Street in Portland, Maine, draws lots of locals for breakfast. (Fred Thys/WBUR)

Becky’s Diner, on Commercial Street, is full mainly of people from “away,” as Mainers call out-of-staters, but breakfast also draws locals. A group of Coast Guard officers waits at the door for a table to open up in the jam-packed restaurant. Harvey Rosenfeld has found a stool at the counter, toward the back. He’s in a good position to talk about the state of the economy.

“I run the Scarborough Economic Development Corp.,” Rosenfeld says.

Scarborough is just south of Portland. Rosenfeld says the economy is not what he would like it to be, but, he says, Greater Portland has managed to keep growing through the recession.

“I guess I could complain, but it’s not worth it,” Rosenfeld says.

But Rosenfeld’s relative optimism, perhaps typical of Southern Maine, is not shared by the rest of the state. The WBUR poll finds that economically, only one-fifth of Mainers say they are better off this year than last.

Rosenfeld has a worry about the upcoming Senate election, and that is that it might turn out just as the last governor’s race did.

“No one got a majority of votes, and the governor was elected with 32 percent of the vote, and we have to have a system where you have a clear winner,” Rosenfeld says.

The WBUR poll finds that Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, remains a polarizing figure, with only 40 percent of Mainers approving his job performance.

Three candidates lead the Senate race at this point. Last week, Secretary of State Charlie Summers won the Republican nomination. State Sen. Cynthia Dill won the Democratic primary. But the dominant presence in the race is former Gov. Angus King, an independent. The WBUR poll finds King ahead with 50 percent of likely voters saying they would choose him. Summers, the Republican, would get 23 percent, and Dill, the Democrat, 9 percent.

Whoever wins will be replacing a senator whose popularity most of her colleagues can only dream about. The WBUR poll finds 82 percent of Mainers give Snowe a favorable rating. Democrats give her even higher marks: 85 percent. One of those Democrats, Tim Brooks, is disappointed that Snowe is retiring.

“She was one of the few moderate senators in Washington,” Brooks says.

Brooks, who has a small Portland Web development business, doesn’t see either the Democratic or Republican candidate up to the task of cross-party cooperation Snowe is renowned for.

“We have two very extreme candidates, both of which would probably go in and create the same kind of polarization that we have now,” Brooks says.

But Brooks is skeptical that King, whom he calls the moderate candidate, can create much balance in Washington.

Snowe’s retirement puts Republicans in a bind as they aim to take the Senate. Hers was a secure Republican seat. No longer. Steve Hines, who is from Cumberland Foreside, south of Portland, relishes that fact.

“I think she really stuck it to the Republicans, and I think Angus King is going to be our next senator,” Hines says. “I’m certainly voting for him. Many Americans, myself included, are really disgusted with what our two-party system has become, and unless we get somebody, hopefully an independent, who’s willing to do what the people want done, which is essentially to tax the rich and to not give so much to the poor and balance the budget, then I think this country would be in a lot better shape.”

Sandy Whitmore, a high school art teacher in South Portland celebrating her retirement at Becky’s, is another King supporter.

“I can count on him to think for himself,” Whitmore says. “He doesn’t just follow a party line.”

With the Senate so evenly divided, there’s a lot of speculation right now in Portland not so much on who will win this election, but with which party King would align himself if he wins. He has said that his decision would depend on which party can offer him the best committee assignments. King has endorsed President Obama, but over the weekend, he told lobbyists in Washington that he truly has not decided with which party he’ll caucus.

Voters here are cognizant of the fact that their choice could determine the balance of power in the Senate this fall. Mainers are proud of their tradition as independent voters. The WBUR poll indicates their independence bodes well for independent Angus King.

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