The Return of Independent Angus King Could Shake Up Washington

Vermont independent Angus King talks with The Daily Beast’s John Avlon.

Joel Page / AP Photo

“Congress has a 9 percent approval rating. The only group in America that has a lower approval rating than the U.S. Congress is serial killers. I mean, the public is absolutely fed up with this stuff. And we can't even begin to solve problems until we do something about this institutional gridlock.”

Meet Angus King, the independent senate candidate from Maine whose lead in the polls has the two parties running scared—because he could very well hold the balance of power in the next Senate.

Even his opponents acknowledge that the former governor, who served from 1995 to 2002, is Maine’s most popular politician. King, who holds the distinction of being the only two-term independent governor in recent American history, is essentially the case study on how to govern effectively as an independent executive.

But King had happily hung up his political cleats and left the arena behind, returning to his law practice, raising his children, and most recently writing a book titled Governor’s Travels: How I Left Politics, Learned to Back Up a Bus and Found America.

Then centrist Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe abruptly announced that she would not run for what had seemed a sure shot at reelection to fourth term, saying “dysfunction and polarization” were crippling it.

“She said the Senate has essentially become a parliamentary body,” King said over the phone in his first national interview since rejoining the political fray. “That every vote is a test of party loyalty and you can't stray. And I thought that was an amazing statement, because that's not the way the U.S. Senate was designed and that's not the way it's operated for most of its 200‑year history.”

And so Angus King started to consider getting back in the arena. There are always a lot of calls for King to run again—after all, Maine is one of the states where registered independents outnumber both Democrats and Republicans. But while an independent can govern a state effectively, can they really make a difference in the U.S. Senate—especially when someone with seniority, like Snowe, felt disgusted enough to walk away?

In the end, King says his favorite movie helped him decided to enter the race. “In Moneyball, Billy Beane realizes that he cannot compete in the same kind of system that all the other teams were doing. He had to try something fundamentally different, and that's really what provoked me to run.”

“Maine could send a new senator down there who is a combination of Pericles, Aristotle, and Thomas Jefferson,” King continues, “but if they were a Republican or Democrat they'd still be reporting in to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. The ability for independent action and decision making would be severely constrained if not impossible. So if you conclude that it's impossible to change it within the current structure, then the only alternative is to try something different. There's no guarantee that I can do it, but I can guarantee that I'm seriously going to give it a hell of a try.”

“I don't have any illusions about how rigid the system is and that it's resistant to change and that I can somehow magically transform it by pure charm,” King continues. “But a lot of people are now predicting a very closely divided Senate, perhaps a deadlocked Senate. Well, if the numbers turn out to be 50-to-49-to-1, I would be the most-popular girl at the prom. I would be in a very strong position to cajole, persuade, and otherwise encourage change.”

King shrugs off the cynicism that greets independents, the dismissal from professional partisans who say that there is no such thing as a real independent in American politics, that the record-high 40 percent of Americans who now identify as independents are just a political mirage or a measure of indecision, signifying nothing.

“Well, I think that's nonsense. If I had to reduce my ideology to a bumper sticker it would be ‘I call 'em as I see 'em.’ Sometimes I'll agree with the Republicans and sometimes the Democrats. I believe in balanced budgets, for example. I believe in treating the taxpayer's money as somebody else's money and it's not our right to spend it irresponsibly. On the other hand, I believe that the issue of abortion is a matter between a woman and her doctor and has no business with the government being in it. I have a lot of beliefs but they just don't neatly fit into some pigeonhole.”

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Republicans strategists were quick to take Maine off their likely win column once Snowe stepped out and King got in the race. Popular liberal Congresswoman Chellie Pingree declined to run despite progressive recruitment after King declared. Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT) predicted King would caucus with the Democrats, an idea that King rejects. “There's nothing in the Constitution about caucusing. There's nothing in the Constitution about parties. I’ll make the decision about caucusing or not and with whom after I'm down there and I see what the circumstances are … they can try to freeze me out in various ways, but I'm still 1 of 100 votes.”

King, who’s been careful not to take anything for granted and has avoided national media to demonstrate his focus on Maine, can’t help looking forward a bit, about the message he hopes a win would send. “If I get elected, particularly with a significant margin, they've got to pay attention because electoral power is what these folks understand. It would represent a very powerful message—that the public is sick and tired of this nonsense. And what if two or three other people like me around the country were elected who said: ‘I don't care about the parties—I just want to solve the problems,’ ‘I don't care who gets the credit,’ and ‘We're going start talking to each other in a grown-up and civil way.’

“If there ended up being kind of an independent caucus, that could change the whole dynamic.”

Independent voters—who now outnumber Democrats or Republicans across the country—deserve some representation in the U.S. Senate after the next election, and Angus King could quickly become a voice for principled independence, a constructive antidote to the dysfunctional division of Washington, D.C.

“I think the moment is right,” he says. “I think we've reached a critical point where people are ready. You know, there's an old saying in politics, ‘as Maine goes, so goes the nation.’ Well, if that's the case, that'll give ’em nightmares in Washington.”