A race that could sway the balance of power in the Senate is facing turbulence because of a couple dozen windmills near the tiny town of Roxbury, Maine.
Independent candidate and former Gov. Angus King had seemed to be a prohibitive favorite in the race to succeed the retiring Republican Olympia Snowe. But his lead has shrunk amid a barrage of conservative attacks, including GOP ads criticizing his involvement with a wind farm that benefited from the same federal program that financed the now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent more than $650,000 on television ads alleging that King used his connections to secure a $102 million Energy Department loan guarantee for the wind project. The ad campaign is part of the nearly $2 million that King’s opponents have spent attacking his record.
Recent polls that show King’s lead is diminishing have prompted him to launch a counterattack, insisting the ads are false and threatening to sue TV stations that run the spots.
He acknowledged the ads are causing damage.
“It’s an all-out assault on all fronts,” King told POLITICO in a telephone interview Thursday. “I think they have had some effect for sure. I think it would be unrealistic that these guys would spend $2 million with no payback.”
He vowed to take a more aggressive stance in the last weeks before the election.
The consequences in the Capitol could be significant, especially because King has declined to say which party he would caucus with if he wins. That stance could make him a kingmaker if the November election allows control of the Senate to hang on a single seat. (On the other hand, conservatives have said they would expect him to align with the Democrats.)
King said earlier this year that he represents “a threat” to the established partisan order in Washington.
But for King’s Republican critics, his involvement with the project known as Record Hill Wind offers yet another opportunity to paint Democrats and their allies as “crony capitalists.”
House Republicans spent more than 18 months investigating Solyndra, the failed solar company that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department. Though they found no smoking gun for their allegations, GOP lawmakers have charged that the loan was granted as payback for President Barack Obama’s campaign donors, and Solyndra has become an endlessly repeated theme for Mitt Romney’s stump speeches.
A broader investigation of the Energy Department’s program by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee led to other critiques from Republicans about the process the DOE used in awarding loan guarantees for less-famous projects such as Record Hill.
The NRSC went even further in its ads, including one released this week that features residents complaining about the project’s wind turbines as a blight on the landscape. Another ad alleges that “Angus King got a sweetheart deal for his windmills,” quoting an opponent of Record Hill who said King was “making millions and millions of dollars” off the project.
Fed up with the ads, King’s campaign threatened Monday to sue if stations didn’t pull them, denying there was a “sweetheart deal” and insisting that he made just over $200,000 on the project.
The NRSC stands by the ads and dismissed King’s threat to sue.
“The NRSC’s ad on Angus King’s record remains on the air for one reason – it’s accurate,” committee spokesman Brian Walsh said in a statement. “We’ve challenged King to release all of his emails, records and contracts regarding this project if he believes it can be proven false but he has refused to do so.”
The King campaign countered with its own ads featuring supporters of the project. “Thank you Angus. I like it,” one Record Hill supporter, standing next to the wind turbines, says in the ad.
King said television stations were still running ads attacking the wind project, but a new version from the NRSC had dropped some of the more controversial accusations.
Some residents of Roxbury, with a population of less than 500, oppose the project, King acknowledged, even though polls show wind power is popular in Maine. The 22-windmill, 51-megawatt project was completed in January and is producing electricity.
“There is for sure a group of people in Maine who just hate wind power, and there’s no question about that. And they got five of them on that ad,” he said.
To support the claims that King used his political connections to boost his project, Republicans have noted that the former governor’s partner in the wind venture asked Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) to write a letter to the Energy Department in support of Record Hill’s loan guarantee application.
“That one letter is the entire basis of this charge that somehow I got a sweetheart deal or I used political connections,” King said. “Those kind of letters from congressmen to federal agencies on behalf of a home state are daily occurrences. This is being played like it’s some kind of dark conspiracy. But I’m not even the guy who requested it.”
King added that he never pressed the White House or the Energy Department to approve the loan guarantee. He said his role in supporting the project was mostly limited to answering questions from the DOE regarding local and state permitting issues.
“During that 16-month process, that was the extent of my involvement. But these guys don’t care about subtleties like that,” he said.
King resigned from Independence Wind, the project developer, in March and sold off his stake in the company.
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