DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Olympia Snowe, a U.S. senator from Maine, announced her retirement earlier this year. And what really grabbed attention was her reason. The Senate had simply become too partisan, and Snowe no longer wanted a part of it. Well, with a Republican vacated her seat, the race is on to fill it. It is quite a race, with an independent former governor, third-party spending and a barrage of negative TV ads. Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon has the report.
SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: Former Maine Governor Angus King is convinced that if the math works out, he could be the power broker in the U.S. Senate, the independent candidate whose vote will break the political gridlock in Washington. But first, he has some explaining to do. At a fair in Fryeburg, Maine, King is asked by Kevin Curtis about the political ads he's been seeing on TV.
KEVIN CURTIS: All those commercials, that - is that...
ANGUS KING: Yeah, they were saying bad things about me?
KING: They're not true. Don't believe them.
CURTIS: They're not?
SHARON: Over the summer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began running an ad that attacked the former governor as the king of spending during his two terms in office. And this one, sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suggests he used improper channels to secure a federal loan.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: King used his political connections to get a taxpayer-backed loan for his windmill business.
SHARON: An independent fact-checker found the ad to be false, and King has spent the past several weeks defending himself, threatening to file suit and looking to close the deal in a campaign that has been solely focused on toppling his lead. That's because despite more than $2 million spent trying to defeat him, King is still well ahead of Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill.
ANTHONY CORRADO: The Maine Senate race has been distinguished by the fact that you have relatively odd dynamics.
SHARON: Colby College Political Science Professor Anthony Corrado says what makes the race unusual is that Republicans have gone so far as to pay for a television ad supporting Democrat Cynthia Dill in hopes of siphoning away votes from King. He says what's also surprising is what's been absent from the race.
CORRADO: There has been very little debate and discussion on the general issues and what these candidates would do if elected. King has not done any advertising that really presents the positive case for his election, and neither the Democrat or Republican nominee have done much advertising to voters to explain what it is they would do if elected.
SHARON: King has been criticized by his Democratic and Republican opponents for refusing to say which party he will caucus with if he wins election to the U.S. Senate. He's largely perceived as a Democrat who supports President Obama and the Affordable Care Act and who's willing to raise taxes, as well as cut spending.
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SHARON: Back at the Fryeburg fairgrounds, it's clear that King remains popular with Maine voters, even if they can't articulate where he stands. Dr. Scott Ferguson is a third generation Republican who's supporting King.
DR. SCOTT FERGUSON: I'm a fiscal conservative, and something has to happen.
SHARON: If I ask you, you know, like, what issue that Angus stands for or against resonates with you, what comes to your mind?
FERGUSON: It's hard to say. I think the economy.
SHARON: When pressed for details about what King would do to improve the economy, Ferguson is unsure. But he says King is well poised to build a centrist coalition that can get results. That's a view that's now being taken to the airwaves.
Recently, the nonpartisan group Americans Elect announced it will be spending more than $1.5 million on the independent candidate's behalf, something that now has King's opponents crying foul about the influence of out-of-state money, and which once again distracts voters from key issues in the race.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Lewiston, Maine.
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