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Stakes are high in fall election

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The auditions are over for Maine’s big-time political drama on Nov. 6. Forget foliage. Forget putting up stewed tomatoes and beans. Autumn this year is about to bring us some of the most intriguing political drama Maine has seen in a long time. So what does it matter that the auditions for candidates, better known as political primaries, took place in a theater with empty seats all over the place?

Don’t be surprised if it turns out to have mattered a lot. The low voter turnout on June 12 may telegraph the outcome in November when Maine elects one U.S. senator – and only one – to join Susan Colllins in casting votes for this state for six years to come.

There will still be lots of noise and political pizzazz as summer arcs toward fall once again. But don’t be fooled. Most of what we’ll hear and see between now and that first week in November is prelude. It will be good, stagey prelude, to be sure, with plenty of tension, drama, spectacle and wild swinging. But not until the sun goes down on Nov. 6 and the people have successfully spoken will we have an election – signed, sealed and delivered – for U.S. Senate.

So, given that reality and the fact every voter knows it, why didn’t the first opportunity to vote in Maine’s first open U.S. Senate contest in 16 years motivate more people to go to the polls?

My best guess is this: Thousands knew who they are going to vote for and his name wasn’t on the ballot. They’re the independent-minded voters who twice elected Angus King to the Blaine House. And they’re planning to vote for him for Senate in November.

No surprise there. Democrats and Republicans alike will no doubt be taking swipes at King in the weeks ahead. Laptops in schools, one of his most identifiable gubernatorial efforts, is getting swiped already. Wind power is blowing around the edges. And there’ll be plenty more to come.

Still, if you take a close look at comments about Senate candidates bouncing around the Internet – especially Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers, Democrat state Sen. Cynthia Dill, primary winners in their parties, and King – you’ll notice a funny thing. King’s supporters don’t just speak of him with political enthusiasm. They speak of him with genuine affection. It’s a kind of “Where you been? We’ve missed you” rhetoric that few candidates, in Maine or anywhere else, attract. Count them on one hand and you’ll still have fingers left over.

But that by-the-numbers competition is a challenge for Summers, Dill and the three other independents in the Senate race. Voters have a different prime directive – making sure that the contest can proceed day by day without crippling cheap shots and unnecessary nastiness so that they can develop a clear understanding of the issues and a genuinely free choice.

The election this fall is an important ballot with important consequences at stake. Take a look at Syria on the evening news, or at disintegrating factories in our own Midwest if you doubt it. Maine has two votes in the Senate, equal to the two votes cast by powerhouse states like Ohio, New York, California, Pennsylvania and the like. That’s a major equalizer for rural states like our own, and it’s supposed to be.

As the Portland Press Herald recently observed, however, “The vast majority of Mainers stayed home” on June 12. They left it for Republican Summers to win his party’s nomination with about 20,000 votes – “about the population of Brunswick.” For her part, Democrat Dill attracted 23,000 votes, “roughly equal to the population of South Portland.”

That left a lot of Maine people cozy at home with their baseball scores, their Bran Flakes and their English muffins. It also left a lot of vital decisions in the U.S. Senate waiting to be made.

With President Obama facing former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney in November, and a state referendum on marriage to determine, Nov. 6 will be no day for breakfast food.

Who better to make that point between now and football season than Charlie Summers. Cynthia Dill and Angus King?