Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree said today she won't run for the U.S. Senate, a decision that could boost the independent Senate bid of former Gov. Angus King.King's entry into the race on Monday certainly made things complicated—a poll from Public Policy Polling showed King narrowly leading a three-way race between himself, Pingree, and Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers. And King unquestionably has much greater appeal to Democrats than Republicans, both in his words and deeds (he endorsed John Kerry and Barack Obama, for instance) and in polling (by a 51-25 margin in PPP's survey, respondents want to see him caucus with Democrats versus Republicans).
"This isn't the right time for me to run for the U.S. Senate," Pingree said today in a phone interview.
Pingree said that rather than pursue the seat now held by U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican who decided last week not to seek a fourth term, she will run for re-election to the 1st District House seat she first won in 2008.
So it would have been a challenge for Pingree to prevail over King, especially given his exceptional popularity. But it wouldn't have been impossible. However, it would have meant trading a virtually safe seat in the House (which she could conceivably hold on to for the rest for her career) for an uncertain shot at the Senate. Perhaps Pingree expects that King, who is 68, will only serve one term if he wins, thus leaving the seat open once again in 2018. Regardless, she chose the path of least resistance, and now it's an open question as to who will run for Team Blue.
Right now, the leading candidate is former Gov. John Baldacci, but he left office in 2010 quite unpopular and performed much more poorly against Republicans in PPP's two-way head-to-heads than Pingree did. PPP didn't test Baldacci in a three-way with King, but you can bet he'd trail by a wider margin than she did. Other possibilities include the roster of candidates who were running before Snowe announced her retirement, including former SoS Matt Dunlap, state Rep. Jon Hinck, and state Sen. Cynthia Dill.
Another big issue is how national Democrats will react. Just a day ago, DSCC chair Patty Murray wouldn't rule out backing King, even though he is, of course, an independent, not a Democrat. Such a move would have to involve a pledge by King to caucus with Senate Democrats in 2013 should he prevail in November, but King has already said multiple times that he won't be pinned down on which party he'll support in Congress. Even with a weaker Democratic nominee than Pingree, King isn't a lock, especially if Democratic voters grow wary of the possibility of him siding with the GOP after election day. But for now, the race tilts in his favor.
Of course, there's always the nightmare scenario that King and whoever runs for the Dems split the left-leaning vote and hand this seat to the GOP, much like what happened in Maine's 2010 gubernatorial race. Let's just hope nothing like that comes to pass.