Former Maine governor Angus King’s independent Senate candidacy has received a boost from the state’s mainstream media outlets—several of which were recently purchased by a high-profile liberal benefactor and King crony—and the bias is altering Republican campaign strategy, according to political insiders in Maine.
King, who is running as an independent, is polling above 50 percent in the three-way Senate race, well ahead of Republican Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers and Democratic state senator Cynthia Dill.
Dill previously told the Free Beacon that national Democrats are refusing to support her candidacy so as to not jeopardize King’s electoral chances.
King, critics say, has promised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to caucus with Democrats.
Major Democratic donors Tony and Heather Podesta cohosted a high-dollar fundraiser for King July 18 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
King campaign spokeswoman Crystal Canney said the Podesta fundraiser did not weaken King’s independent credentials.
"He has been very clear about making no commitments to either side and donations large and small have come from members of both parties as well as independents, all of whom are identified in FEC filings," Canney said.
King has not only received a boost from prominent national Democrats; he has also benefitted from favorable media coverage by outlets owned by prominent Maine Democrats.
"First District Democratic congresswoman Chellie Pingree is the wife of Donald Sussman, who bought the Portland Press-Herald and the Kennebec Journal. Some of the largest newspapers in Maine might as well be an element of the Democrat Party now. So King is obviously getting a lot of favorable press," Knox County Republican chairman Jan Dolcater told the Free Beacon.
Donald Sussman, founder of the Greenwich, Conn.-based, billion-dollar-plus investment fund Paloma Partners, is also the owner of Maine’s largest media company, Maine Values LLC.
Maine Values LLC purchased a 75 percent stake in MaineTodayMedia, which owns and operates the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel, the Coastal Journal, and "several digital properties" in March.
Sussman contributed $1.3 million to Maine Democratic causes in 2010, making him the top individual donor in the state. He and King are close personal friends, and have reportedly vacationed together in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"It’s definitely concerning, but it’s not unusual" for a newspaper magnate to hold a political ideology, said Kelly McBride, senior faculty member of journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute. "The question is: does [Sussman’s] political ideology affect the product that he’s putting out?"
The King campaign denied accusations that the media is giving King a pass or that Sussman’s friendship has influenced news coverage.
"We have been asked tough questions by the media—specifically including the Portland papers—and expect this will continue throughout the campaign," Canney said. "Angus has been supported in the past by the Portland papers and many others in Maine—long before Mr. Sussman's investment."
Others in the state feel differently.
"The news media in Maine is definitely for Angus. The newspapers have a lot of good things to say about him and a lot of people in media protect him," said Somerset County Republican Chairman Cynthia Izon.
"They’re absolutely in the can for Angus and the Democrats. Both print and television," said State Representative and former Maine Republican Senate Leader Paul Davis, who engaged in budget battles with King during King’s governorship. "It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out."
"Charlie Summers doesn’t have the funds to buy a newspaper," Davis said, referring to the GOP candidate in the race.
"There’s definitely a feeling among a lot of people, on the liberal as well as conservative side, that there are certain places the media won’t go. Either the staffers or the general institutions of those newspapers do not want to dig into Angus King on the issues," said Jason Savage, executive director of the nonpartisan advocacy group Maine People Before Politics.
The Maine Republican Party is redesigning its campaign messaging strategy to bypass Sussman-controlled news outlets and get information on King’s fiscal record and personal financial dealings out to the public in new ways, insiders said.
"[Maine GOP chairman] Charlie Webster has made a point this election cycle of appointing people under him who understand the Internet and how to work it on a professional level," said Andy Torbett, a conservative Maine blogger.
"The last time Angus King ran for governor, it was a whole different time. I don’t think he’s prepared for some of the backlash he’s going to get from the Internet," Torbett said.
The Maine Wire reported in March on a Congressional Oversight Committee report criticizing a $102 million loan guarantee for one of King’s wind energy projects. The congressional report stated that King’s project "attempted to categorize minor modifications to existing commercial technology as ‘innovativeness’" in order to receive a federal loan.
A 227-word item in the "State House Notebook" section of Sussman’s Portland Press Herald on July 15 addressed the controversy with the headline, "Mainers are OK with Windmills and Subsidies," citing a Portland Press Herald poll to declare that the issue "may not hurt King with Maine voters.
"The only way we can get past the media of Maine, with their stranglehold on the information highway, is if we use the Internet effectively. That’s the way we get these grassroots groups activated and ready to fight," Torbett said.
Maine Republicans plan to build on the grassroots infrastructure that helped Tea Party-backed Republican Paul LePage win a three-way race for the governor’s mansion in 2010 with 38.33 percent of the vote.
The Maine GOP plans on investing in new campaign offices for Charlie Summers in strategic locations around the state, including a Knox County headquarters in Rockland, Maine.
"I’ve knocked on more than 400 doors all across the state, and I can tell you that the mood in Maine is changing," Knox County Republican chairman Dolcater said. "The blue state is shifting to purple."
"Before LePage, the problem we always had with conservatives here was getting them all to coalesce. But I think this time having Angus King as an opponent is finally enough to unify them," Torbett said.
The GOP’s only hope may be to get information about King out to the public, said Rep. Paul Davis.
"If the truth can get out, then I think Summers can do a good job in the race," Davis said. "But the truth has to come out."