BRUNSWICK, Maine – Independent Senate candidate Angus King of Maine has a woman problem. He's not one.
The popular former governor is the undisputed front-runner in the campaign to replace retiring Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, the state's most powerful female voice in a generation.
But beneath the 68-year-old businessman's popularity is a stark political reality: For many Maine women, King is not their first choice. And this election, perhaps more than any other, underscores the sometimes conflicting priorities for a Democratic Party struggling to beat back a Republican takeover of the Senate.
Democrats are betting big on women in elections across the nation — from the presidential battleground to the coastal Maine community where King opened his state headquarters last week. They have accused Republicans of waging a "war on women," seizing on the GOP's push to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, adopt stricter abortion laws and block contraception coverage for employees of religious institutions.
While women are a key voting bloc nationwide, King's need to court them in Maine may be more acute.
He is trying to replace Snowe, a moderate and backer of abortion rights who enjoyed support from women in both parties during a congressional career that spanned more than 30 years. He's also working against a proud local tradition that has sent a Maine woman to the U.S. Senate in seven of the last eight decades. And he faces lingering disappointment from some voters who preferred Rep. Chellie Pingree, the state's top elected female Democrat, who did not enter the contest.
Evidence of King's challenge is everywhere, even among the applause, balloons and laughter at the headquarters-opening party in Brunswick.
"I wanted Chellie to run," 48-year-old registered Democrat Tory Dietel Hopps, a philanthropic adviser from Cumberland, Maine, said in the midst of the crowded office. "But if we can't have Chellie in the Senate, we can have Angus. That works for me."
King is doing all he can to enhance his appeal to women, although he acknowledges the obvious limitations.
"I'm not a woman. Blame my mother," a smiling King told The Associated Press. But he praised the state's tradition of sending women to Washington.
"I think it's important. I've supported (Sen.) Susan (Collins) and Olympia practically every time they've run," King said, noting that his first "four or five" campaign hires were women. "But I think it's patronizing to women to say you have to be a member of the female gender in order to support the interests and rights and privacy of women. That's like saying white people shouldn't pass the Civil Rights Act."
King, who also favors abortion rights and opposes efforts to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, says the GOP's focus on abortion laws, women's health providers and contraception is "a huge mistake."
Democratic leaders in Washington have been pushing the woman theme since late last year.
With a slate of strong female candidates competing in Senate races from Hawaii to Wisconsin, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray in December suggested that 2012 would be the new year of the woman. Her organization has already actively supported female contenders, even in states where Democratic primaries have yet to winnow the field.
But not in Maine.
The campaign committee has been reluctant to rally behind Cynthia Dill, a state senator from suburban Portland who built a legal career fighting gender discrimination. She is facing fellow Democrat Matthew Dunlap, a former secretary of state, among others, in a June primary. Ultimately, she hopes to defeat King in the general election and keep Snowe's seat in female hands, as it has been since 1995.
"This election is about values and choices. And in my view it's critically important to have more women at the table making decisions," Dill said.
Dill's identity as a mother and outspoken advocate for women in the state Legislature has come to define her candidacy. But there is very little practical difference between the woman-related policies Dill would support versus those of King.
They have the same positions on abortion, access to contraception and Planned Parenthood. The differences, Dill says, are more personal.
"He and I live very different lives," she said. "I have right now, two kids in high school, that I get up for in the morning and make their breakfast and make their lunch and do their grocery shopping. And I gave birth to them."
Many agree that women are best suited to defending women's rights on Capitol Hill. But that's not enough to convince the DSCC to support Dill.
The committee does not plan to take a position on the race until after the Democratic primary, according to spokesman Shripal Shah.
With control of the Senate at stake, the prospect of winning a seat held by Republicans for nearly two decades appears to be superseding the desire to keep the seat in female hands.
King refuses to say whether he'll side with Democrats or Republicans if elected, but his policies are largely in line with Democrats, who hold a 51-47 majority in the Senate plus two independents who caucus with Democrats.
The Republican candidates include Secretary of State Charles Summers and state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin.
Dill is struggling to raise money. She collected roughly $25,000 in the first fundraising quarter. And she is still largely unknown among many Democrats statewide.
King raised more than $135,000 in the first two weeks of his campaign, in addition to a personal loan of nearly $38,000. He reported $142,000 in his campaign account at the end of March, according to federal filings.