Officials predict low turnout for Maine primaries on June 12

Posted June 07, 2012, at 2:52 p.m.
Last modified June 07, 2012, at 4:24 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — With a low turnout predicted for next Tuesday’s primaries, name recognition by a core of every-time voters could be the key to winning in the contested races in Maine, observers say. But no matter who appears to have the advantage in Maine’s major races, a small turnout makes calling a winner difficult.

“There’s a lot of potential for upsets in these low-turnout elections,” Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College, said Thursday.

In the most closely watched races, six Republicans and four Democrats are contending for their respective parties’ nominations for Maine’s open U.S. Senate seat. Only the Republicans have contested primaries in the state’s two House districts, while the Democratic incumbents are unchallenged.

Maine election officials say a low number of requests for absentee ballots suggests the likelihood of a poor turnout. The Maine secretary of state’s office said the latest figures show only 4,229 Mainers had requested absentee ballots or voted early as of Tuesday. Even if there’s a late flurry of requests, the numbers will fall far short of those for the June 2010 primary, which had 36,946 absentee ballots cast, and the June 2008 primary, with 14,430 cast, officials said.

Primaries typically have low turnouts, in the 20 percent range, and there’s no reason to expect anything different this year. Megan Sanborn of the secretary of state’s office said the closest comparable primary, which featured a five-way Democratic primary and three-way GOP race for U.S. Senate, drew 20 percent.

In the primaries, “so many of these voters are going to be people who vote every single time,” said Franz. And many of those voters tend to be drawn to the candidate with the best name recognition, he said.

“Other than that, it’s a jump ball to me,” Franz said.

While each of the GOP Senate candidates has some level of name recognition, Rick Bennett’s past political experience may help him, while state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Secretary of State Charlie Summers have been in the public eye more recently, said Franz. The other Republicans in the race are businessman Scott D’Amboise, Attorney General William Schneider and state Sen. Debra Plowman.

On the Democratic side, “no one’s distinguishing themselves,” said Dennis Bailey, a political consultant who is not associated with any candidate. “There’s no way to tell who’s going to break their way through.”

It’s possible former legislator and secretary of state Matthew Dunlap of Old Town will do well, being the only candidate from the northern half of the state. His rivals in the Senate primary are state Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth, Rep. Jon Hinck and Ben Pollard, both of Portland.

But Democratic primaries tend to draw activists and progressives, and it’s not a safe bet Dunlap would benefit from those groups, Bailey said.

On the GOP side, Poliquin has been spending the most money and seems to draw the most criticism from his rivals, suggesting he’s in the lead, said Bailey. He and others have spent a lot on television ads, but “TV’s not going to matter as much as who’s organizing and getting people to the polls,” he said.

In the Republican House primaries, state Sen. Jon Courtney faces merchant mariner Patrick Calder in the 1st District, and in the 2nd District Senate President Kevin Raye faces the lesser-known retired Navy man Blaine Richardson.

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