As we've discussed in this space, the conventional wisdom is that former independent Maine Gov. Angus King will caucus with the Democratic party in the U.S. Senate if he wins (as he is strongly favored to do) the open seat up for election in November. The premise is that King is generally more liberal than conservative in his views, endorsed President Obama's reelection, and supports the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
Moreover, the premise is not just theoretical. The Democrats have actually acted on it, by deciding not to field a "top-flight" candidate (as in: widely known, popular elected officials) against King, and not to "try too hard" to advance the cause of their actual candidate (State Sen. Cynthia Dill).
The only minor problem with the conventional wisdom is that King himself isn't on board. He says he will retain his independence and be "the most powerful voice for Maine possible."
All the reasons proposed for why King would caucus with the Democrats (he must caucus with one side or the other in order to obtain committee assignments) make sense in the case in which King's vote doesn't matter. If the Democrats have a majority, then he might as well join it, since he will be sympathetic with their side. If the Republicans have a majority, then he's not of much value to them, and, again, he's likely to join the party he's idelogically compatible with.
- Party A: 50 seats
- Party B: 49 seats, plus the vice presidency
In that case, then whomever King sides with wins the majority. He is the deciding vote.
[And, given the state of the races, it is a very real possibility in either direction.]
At that point, to simply decide based on preference would be to leave vast amounts of political power on the table. In my experience, politicians do not do that.
In that scenario, both sides would have to attempt to accommodate King. If your party fails to win over King, your party loses (unless King abstaining is a real option, in which case the party with 50 would win, but that assumes King would abdicate even more clout than the "he'll choose the Democrats because he likes them better" scenario).
So both parties will have great incentive to win over King, and no incentive to "drop out." King will have no reason not to seek "the best deal for Maine."
Now ... it is true that the Republicans will be more constrained in terms of offering King ideological victories that their caucus might not go along with, but that might make them more willing to concur with institutional or rules changes that the Democrats might oppose.
At this stage, there are a number of interesting possibilities:
- Could King make himself majority leader? It's happened in state legislatures when both parties were dependent on a single swing vote. It doesn't seem very plausible, but if you lose if you don't get his vote, what are you going to do?
- Could King force a coalition or power-sharing? If one party is willing to agree to share power in order to get King's vote, then it's possible. Or ... if the two parties agree to share power in order to avoid the need for King's vote. That's possible too.
- Could King dictate committee chairmanships or committee assignments? Again, that could be something that gets offered.
- Could King switch back and forth, as he's alluded to in his campaign? It seems pretty unlikely that they would rearrange the entire institution every few weeks based on what King feels like at the time, but, in theory, there could be means set up to allow certain committees and subject matter to be controlled by one party and other committees and subject matter controlled by the other.
All we know for sure is that it would be pretty interesting.