Endorsements always bring some surprises

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Re:Maine

If Maine’s daily newspapers have anything to say about it, independent candidate Eliot Cutler will be elected governor on Nov. 2.

Cutler received the endorsements of six of the state’s seven dailies, while Democrat Libby Mitchell was picked by the Biddeford Journal Tribune. Republican Paul LePage was shut out, though he’s led most polls.

Cutler was praised, in firm but not extravagant terms, by the Bangor Daily News, Lewiston Sun Journal, Brunswick Times Record, and the Maine Today dailies in Portland, Augusta and Waterville – offering the same editorial in all three editions.

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Endorsements have never determined an election’s outcome, though they can influence it. Nevertheless, they’re worth attention from careful voters both because of what they say, and what they don’t.

Some readers dislike endorsements, arguing that newspapers shouldn’t be telling them how to vote. I’ve written my share of endorsement editorials over the years, and I’ve never understood this objection.

Editorials offer opinions about just everything under the sun, and it would be strange if they were to say nothing about who’s best qualified to lead the state.

And there’s much of interest in these texts. It’s hardly surprising that Cutler, third in most polls, would score much higher with newspaper editors and publishers.

Newspaper people tend to distrust partisanship, prize independent thinking, and like candidates who can write and think clearly. Cutler fills the bill.

Yet other forces have converged to make Cutler plausible as Maine’s third independent governor, following Jim Longley, elected in 1974, and Angus King, in 1994 and 1998. Like the ’74 Watergate election that produced a Democratic landslide and 1994, which gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, political currents are running strongly against incumbents, even those – like Mitchell – who occupy a different office.

In most states, voters’ alternative to Republicans are Democrats, and vice-versa, producing a “throw the bums out” effect. Maine is unusual in having independents as the largest voting bloc. Change can favor a “third force” in ways it does not elsewhere.

Editorial writers are good political observers, as a rule, and though none of the endorsement editorials are especially memorable, they all have telling phrases.

Aptly — for an election in which so many voters remain undecided — they are snappiest in dismissing opponents rather than praising their candidate.

The Bangor Daily News describes Mitchell and LePage as a choice “between one candidate who wants to largely maintain the status quo and another who wants to blow up state government.” The Sun Journal focuses more on LePage’s failings: “LePage is correct on the issues, but his bare-knuckle style and bully tactics will not produce the change Mainers so desperately need.”

The Journal Tribune states its minority view by contrasting the “blunt assurance” of LePage and Cutler to Mitchell’s “polite insistence,” adding that this “has proven to be an effective way of getting things done.”

In a campaign focused mostly on negatives, the Times Record finds reason to be optimistic about Cutler, who “offers a thoughtful, detailed and convincing vision of how we can make Maine the ‘best turnaround’ state in the country.”

The Portland-Augusta-Waterville editorial even has kind words for Gov. John Baldacci, the forgotten man at this stage of the proceedings, saying he “did admirable work in keeping Maine stable amid the most turbulent weather for state government since the 1930s.”

For media junkies, there was insight into the endorsement process from Maine Today Publisher Richard Connor. He said the editorial board did not meet with LePage, whose campaign ignored five separate phone calls and five e-mail requests, though someone finally called back after the deadline – an unusual tactic from a front-runner.

Connor also said the editorial board deadlocked on one race – he did not say which – before one member switched sides and created a majority.

While Connor said, “We do not see ourselves as conservative or liberal, as Democrat or Republican” the Maine Today papers did not endorse any Democrats for Congress, either, supporting Republican challengers Dean Scontras, in the 1st District, and Jason Levesque, in the 2nd. The Bangor Daily News took the more traditional course, endorsing Democratic incumbents Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud.

Scontras, in particular, has uttered many eye-opening remarks, such as his contention, repeated in this week’s debates, that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” – a financial fraud – rather than the established protection against hunger and sickness in old age that most Mainers believe it to be.

But there are always a few surprises when the endorsements come out. We’ll soon see if the surprises of Tuesday night prove equally entertaining.

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