Miscalculations and missteps by Angus King’s campaign have some political observers saying the former governor is closer to losing Maine’s U.S. Senate race than he should be.
The same analysts say that even the most pessimistic polling numbers for King show that he’s still in command of the race. However, it’s clear that his handlers recognize it’s time to change strategy and have vowed to retool a campaign that has been criticized for its passivity, complacency and messaging.
Close observers of the campaign said Tuesday that the public has seen and heard little of King’s charisma, his achievements and his policy positions. Instead, they said, Mainers have seen and heard nearly $2 million worth of television and radio ads that have defined King as a governor who mismanaged state finances and a beneficiary of political cronyism.
Michael Cuzzi, a former Democratic campaign strategist who manages the Portland branch of VOX Global, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, said the King team was slow to transition from a classic front-runner campaign.
“I’m not privy to the campaign’s internal strategy here, but it seems to me that they’ve been relying upon the idea that he’s very well known, he has high name recognition, he’s very well respected and that is sufficient to carry him,” Cuzzi said. “I think what they’re now finding is that’s not the case, particularly when faced with this barrage of outside money.
“This campaign isn’t tanking and it isn’t in imminent danger,” Cuzzi said. “Having said that, it appears that it has stumbled a bit in finding its footing and responding in an appropriate way.”
Others have noted that the campaign has made public relations mistakes that have been repackaged and rebroadcast by opponents.
The campaign first made news for requesting that a Twitter account that parodied King be removed. It was later mocked for initially requiring contest winners to have background checks before eating hot dogs with King and his wife, Mary Herman.
Most recently, the campaign was criticized for editing critical statements from a 4,000-word profile of King in the Maine Sunday Telegram before posting it on the campaign website.
The latest episode overshadowed the campaign’s attempt to seize the initiative against one of its main antagonists, the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The campaign called a press conference Monday to announce that it would sue Maine television stations if they did not stop airing ads by the Republican group that attack a wind power project that King helped to develop in Roxbury.
The campaign said the ad is deceptive and contains false claims. It released a rebuttal ad featuring Roxbury residents who support the wind power project.
Some analysts say the ad may be the strongest that King’s campaign has released. But attention shifted back to King’s campaign, which had to answer questions about redacting critical passages from the Maine Sunday Telegram profile.
On Monday, Kay Rand, King’s campaign manager, was asked by reporters why it had taken so long to fight back against Republican attacks.
She said that “in hindsight,” perhaps the campaign should have contested an earlier ad by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. King’s team hotly contested claims made in the ad but didn’t ask TV stations to stop running it and didn’t counter with an ad of its own.
Rand acknowledged that the campaign knew early that Republicans would attack King’s involvement with the wind power industry.
Political observers say King’s handlers miscalculated the impact of the negative ads.
Dennis Bailey, who was King’s communications director when King was governor, said the campaign made a mistake by not immediately countering the first U.S. Chamber ad.
“I’m of the James Carville philosophy, that if they attack you with a fly-swatter you come back with a chain saw,” said Bailey, adding that an effective television response to the U.S. Chamber ad may have stopped a slide in polling numbers and the ensuing spending by outside groups.
“I know it’s Monday morning quarterbacking,” Bailey said in an email, “but I was surprised at the time that he let that ad run through the Olympics (in July and August) with no response. I would never advise that.”
It’s unclear whether King’s internal polling didn’t capture the narrowing gap, or whether the campaign simply didn’t anticipate that it would spur additional spending from Republican groups.
Either way, the campaign faces criticism that its responses have left King vulnerable.
Last week, King’s team released an ad featuring Sam Waterson, the actor perhaps most known for his role in the “Law and Order” television series. Waterson laments to viewers that outsiders are attacking King.
The spot was derided immediately by Republicans and neutral observers, who noted that Waterson, who has no ties to Maine, was effectively an outsider telling Mainers how to vote.
Supporters of Republican candidate Charlie Summers have called King a hypocrite for complaining that groups from Washington, D.C., are trying to influence the race while courting outside money to bolster his campaign.
Others question whether King, famous for calling his own shots as governor, has a campaign staff that will throw cold water on ideas that could backfire.
Recently, Rand, a widely respected campaign strategist, has played a more public role. On Monday, she said the campaign would use the final weeks of the campaign to draw a clear distinction between King and his opponents, Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill.
“We’re not going to get involved with mudslinging or making specious claims about our opponents,” Rand said. “But we are going to let people know exactly where Angus stands, where our opponents stand and what that choice means for Mainers.”
There’s general agreement that the campaign has made many mistakes that have emboldened King’s rivals. A poll released in March gave King nearly a 30-percentage-point lead. One poll released last week showed his advantage at 8 points. Most agree that more outside money is on its way.
Cuzzi said early missteps have forced the King campaign to “effectively reintroduce him to voters.”
Cuzzi said that while the campaign should challenge any untruths, it should also do a better job promoting the former governor.
“The campaign has yet to produce the sort of big ideas that match the candidate,” he said.