Snowe’s retirement leaves Senate Dems with tough decision

Democrats looking to replace retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) in Maine have a delicate decision to make.

If they back independent former Gov. Angus King, who stands the best chance at winning, they risk the appearance of having abandoned their own party's candidates.

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But if they support one of the four Democrats competing in the primary, they risk siphoning votes away from King and handing the seat back to Republicans.

Looming over the race is the lingering question about which party King will caucus with if elected to the Senate. King has steadfastly refused to say with which party he’ll cast his lot, a silence that some of his opponents claim deprives voters of the information they need to cast an informed ballot.

But both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that when push comes to shove, King is likely to side with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Still, neither Senate Democrats nor Maine’s two Democratic members of the House will say whether they will back King or hold out for the Democratic nominee.

“Not until the field's settled am I going to say anything,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) told The Hill last week.

Murray’s comments were striking because the filing period for partisan candidates has passed; no new Democrats or Republicans can enter the race. Only additional independents, Murray acknowledged, are still eligible to enter the race.

“I’m staying out of the race right now,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), without ruling out the possibility that she would back King, a friend of the congresswoman, after the primary was over on June 5. “We’ll see what happens then.”

A spokesman for Rep. Michael Michaud (D), Maine’s other House member, said he too was undecided. Both Michaud and Pingree publicly considered running for Snowe’s seat, but opted out, perhaps realizing that a run against King was a losing proposition.

Most strategists expect Democrats will officially support their party’s nominee, then sit on their hands.

Democrats were giddy when they learned in February that Snowe, a popular centrist Republican with an almost certain path to reelection, was retiring, creating an open seat in a state that President Obama won by 18 points in 2008.

If King hadn’t run and Democrats were to have landed a top-tier recruit like Michaud or Pingree, that recruit could have banked on the DSCC sending millions of dollars up north to help the Democrat win the seat.

But with King in the race, the DSCC can hold on to its cash, freeing up resources for even tougher races elsewhere.

In Maine, the state Democratic Party is officially backing its Democratic candidates and waiting to see if a viable contender emerges from the primary.

But with King polling ahead of both Republicans and Democrats, there is a clear understanding that Democrats would be happier with King as senator than with a Republican who could win the race if King and the Democrat split the vote.

“We’d be lying if we told you that every Democrat we’ve talked to has told us we have to support the Democratic candidate,” said a Maine Democratic official. “Democrats in the state are definitely weighing their options between a Democrat and Angus King — and some are definitely on the King bandwagon.”

For Republicans, the situation created by Snowe’s retirement is equally precarious. Senate Republicans didn’t expect to have to defend this seat — one that could determine the balance of power in a closely divided Senate come November.

And with King in the race, the GOP’s options are limited.

Convinced that King will caucus with Democrats, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has made King the enemy, accusing him of cutting a backroom deal with Democratic leaders and blasting him for his lack of candor about with which party he will caucus.

“It’s simply insulting to voters in Maine and to the candidates running for the Democratic nomination that King is playing this dishonest, cat-and-mouse game,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh.

Republicans know they must attack King if they want to create an opening for one of the six GOP candidates to defeat him. If attacks on King peel off just enough votes, King and the Democratic nominee could split Maine’s large swath of centrist voters, and the Republican could walk away with the seat.

But push too many voters away from King and to the Democratic nominee, and there’s a slight chance the Democrat could win the seat — an outcome the GOP would like even less than having King in the Senate.

Calling attention to Democrats’ reluctance to back their own party’s candidates, the NRSC in March sent a memo dripping with cynicism to state Sen. Cynthia Dill, one of the leading Democratic candidates. The letter reminded Dill that the DSCC has dubbed 2012 the “year of the woman,” suggesting to Dill that she hit up top Senate Democrats for the cash she’ll need to take on King.

“If you’re asking me if I want money from national Democrats, yes, I’d love some,” Dill said Friday in a telephone interview. “But without it, I’m still planning on winning — and I think I can win.”