By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Former Maine Governor Angus King won a three-way contest on Tuesday for the Senate seat that Republican Olympia Snowe is vacating after a race in which he ran as an Independent and promised to be a voice of moderation in a polarized Congress.
King, a soft-spoken, motorcycle-riding resident of coastal Brunswick, Maine, is known as fiscally conservative but socially liberal, a common combination in rocky northern New England.
The outcome is a blow to Republican hopes of taking the majority in the Senate.
A key question is whether King will caucus with Democrats or Republicans in the U.S. Senate. He refused to say during the campaign although most political analysts assume he will caucus with Democrats.
"It is my goal to be a bridge," King said on Twitter. "The message of this election is that we are close and the people want us to get closer."
The two independents in the current Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, both caucused with Democrats.
King beat Democratic state senator Cynthia Dill and Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers to claim the seat.
His victory speaks both to high name recognition in a state he led from 1995 through 2003 as well as a moderate streak in Maine politics, one observer said.
"Once King decided to get in, the top-shelf Republicans and Democrats read the tea leaves and said, 'This probably isn't the best race for me to take,'" said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine.
"There is a long tradition in Maine of a pragmatic, independent streak where partisanship takes a back seat to doing the right thing and being able to work for solutions regardless of partisanship, which has kind of fallen by the wayside in parts of the country."
King's chance for the Senate opened up in February when Snowe said she would be retiring from the Senate after 18 years, having tired of what she described in March as "dysfunction and political paralysis" in Washington.
King cited Snowe's frustration with partisan gridlock in Washington as motivating his run as an independent.
Snowe was known as a centrist who often broke with her party, and King's election could hold off a Republican effort to capture a majority in the upper chamber of Congress.
Indeed, the national Democratic Party opted not to support Dill, figuring King had a better chance of defeating Summers.
(Reporting By Scott Malone; Editing by Ciro Scotti)