This man could flip the Senate

Sen.-elect Angus King, I-Maine, speaks to members of his staff at the U.S. Capitol after being elected last year.

Story highlights

  • Angus King is urging Independent Senate candidates against siding with either party
  • King is talking to Kansas Senate candidate Greg Orman and Larry Pressler of South Dakota
  • King won't say which party he'll join next year
A quiet lobbying campaign by a low-key man from Maine could determine which party controls the Senate next year.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine Independent, is holding private conversations with Independent Senate candidates to urge them against siding with Democrats or Republicans before the election. In a narrowly divided Senate, this group of Independents could tip the balance of power -- and wield tremendous clout.
"If you announce in advance which party you're going to caucus with, you may as well just sign up and say I'm one or the other," King told CNN.
King recently advised Independent Kansas Senate candidate Greg Orman on how to be most effective running outside the two party system. Another Independent candidate, Larry Pressler of South Dakota, got similar pointers from King, who strongly suggested that Pressler evade questions about which party he he will caucus with -- just as King did when he first ran for the Senate two years ago.
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After his 2012 election as an Independent, King decided to caucus with Democrats, who currently control the Senate. But he's taking the same advice he's giving the candidates, refusing to rule out joining Republicans if they capture the Senate.
"I'm not going to answer that question," King said. "I'll make that decision at the time based upon what i think is in the best interest of Maine."
He added: "My first priority is to try to make the Senate work better and to the extent that as an Independent I can help to do that, that's my goal," said King.
King admitted he has been in talks with other moderate Senators in both parties for "the past six months or so" to form a centrist caucus.
However, he said it would be an informal group, and he does not envision breaking away any time soon from organizing around the two parties, as the Senate does now.
POWER OF THE INDEPENDENT
When King got to the Senate in 2013 there was only one other Independent, Bernie Sanders, a proud progressive who knows how to work across the aisle, like negotiating a Veterans Affairs overhaul. But Sanders has always caucused with Democrats.
It used to be that Independents were titling at windmills, almost sure to lose to either the Democratic or Republican candidates.
"The hardest thing for an Independent is to get across an invisible credibility line and they're not wasting their vote," said King.
But he crossed that invisible line in part because he had proven himself as a successful Independent governor here, but also because people were so desperate to send an alternative to Washington.
"When I was campaigning in Maine two years ago and people came up to me on the street they never started the conversation with health care, the Affordable Care Act, Syria, or anything else. What they started with was 'why can't those people down there talk to each other and get something done?'" recalled King.
That overriding disgust appears more potent in 2014. Strategists in both parties say their data show the most effective candidates this election year are those who can genuinely separate themselves from today's partisan politics.
That's why candidates like Orman, and to a lesser extent Pressler, a former Republican, are doing well, and Independent candidates in other states are doing well enough to make an impact on their races.
Kansas Independent Senate candidate Greg Orman
South Dakota Independent Senate candidate Larry Pressler
"What I think it says is that the public is tired of the choices that they're being given and they're very tired of the gridlock and they're looking for alternatives," King told us.
KING DID NOT ENDORSE FELLOW INDEPENDENT
Orman is running in a tight race against sitting Sen. Pat Roberts. King told CNN that in his conversation with Orman, he explained that he couldn't provide an endorsement because he made a pledge not to campaign against a sitting colleague.
Still, he told Orman that he was happy to give him advice and is encouraged by his strong Independent candidacy.
And while King is careful to say he is not sure there is a major trend towards Independent candidates quite yet, he openly dreams of Orman and Pressler actually winning and what that would mean for the future of Independents in politics.
"It's going to encourage other people in other states who are going to say 'look there are guys in the Senate who are doing this and it's not unthinkable. They're getting these done," said King.
INDEPENDENT - SPOILER?
The reality is that Independent candidates in most campaigns still register in single digits at best, and are viewed by party leaders as mere spoilers taking away votes from GOP or Democratic candidates.
In the governors race here in Maine, if incumbent Republican Paul LaPage wins, he can likely thank Independent Eliot Cutler for pulling votes away from Democrat Michael Michaud.
"I prefer the term winner to the term spoiler," King said generally of the sentiment.
"There is always a risk but you can't calculate these kinds of things. you gotta say who is the best candidate," he added, perhaps wishfully.