Staff Writer

Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill held strong leads late Tuesday in Maine’s U.S. Senate primaries.

With 63 percent of voting places reporting, Secretary of State Summers had 28 percent of the vote. State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin was in second place with 23 percent.

Former Maine Senate President Rick Bennett was in third place with 17 percent when he conceded the race at about 10:30 p.m.

On the Democratic side, state Sen. Dill, of Cape Elizabeth, led the pack with 44 percent of the vote. Former Secretary of State Matt Dunlap of Old Town was in second with 38 percent.

Summers said he was cautiously optimistic and noted he won Farmington with 253 votes, more than twice that of second-place finisher Bennett. Summers later was closely watching the returns come in from Aroostook and Lincoln counties. “It seems like they are going my way right now,” he said.

Poliquin was not conceding anything at 10 p.m., however.

“We’re at peace with ourselves,” Poliquin said, while waiting for results with his supporters in Augusta. “We have done everything humanly possible to give the people of the state of Maine a new voice for fiscal discipline in Washington.”

Rick Bennett waited with friends and campaign staffers in the Auburn Hilton Garden Inn.

Early in the evening, before conceding the race, he took comfort in returns from Dennistown Plantation in Somerset County.

“There was one vote cast, and it was for me,” he said.

Dill was waiting for results at The Local Buzz, a cafe and bar in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth.

Richard Farnsworth, a Democratic candidate for the Maine House, said he was happy to see Dill in the lead.

“She’s our best opportunity for the Democrats to beat the stuffing out of Angus,” he said, referring to the independent candidate Angus King.

Dunlap watched the numbers come in at Pat’s Pizza in Orono and said he was ready for a long night as he and Dill jockeyed for the lead. “I feel good about where we are and the support we’ve gotten in the campaign,” he said.

The race to replace U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, could decide the balance of power in the Senate and has drawn national attention to the state.

However, the primaries did little to excite Maine’s Democrats and Republicans. The voter turnout was unusually low even for a primary election, which typically draws about 20 percent of registered voters.

The final turnout was not clear at deadline. Summers, the secretary of state whose office oversees elections, predicted a roughly 18 percent turnout after the polls closed.

In June 2010, Maine’s gubernatorial primaries attracted a 32 percent turnout. The June 2008 turnout, on the other hand, was about 19 percent.

In 1996, the last time Democrats and Republicans competed for an open U.S. Senate seat, 20 percent of registered voters cast ballots. (Susan Collins ultimately won that seat.)

The turnout was especially low in Portland, a democratic stronghold. About 10.2 percent of the registered voters in Maine’s largest city cast a ballot today, which is a total of 4,999 voters, according to Portland’s election administrator.

“I can’t imagine it being this slow at this point at any time in the past decade,” Bud Philbrick said around noon.

About 26 percent of Portland voters cast ballots in the June 2010 primary, according to the city clerk’s office.

The race for the U.S. Senate was the main draw Tuesday as Six Republicans and four Democrats sought the seat being vacated by Sen. Olympia Snowe, who announced in February she would retire because of the polarization in Washington.

The three other Republicans candidates trailed at press time. Scott D’Amboise had 12 percent, state Sen. Debra Plowman of Hampden had 10 percent, and Attorney General Bill Schneider had 8 percent.

Two Democrats trailed Dill and Dunlap: Rep. Jon Hinck of Portland had 11 percent and Benjamin Pollard, also of Portland, had 8 percent.

Former Gov. Angus King’s entry into the race as an independent made him the presumed frontrunner. King won’t be on the ballot until November, however, which kept some voters away from the polls Tuesday.

Peter Gaulke, a left-leaning Republican in Portland, said he couldn’t vote for any of the GOP candidates on the ballot so he wrote in King’s name.

“I’d just like to see people be more pragmatic. Ideology has gone too far,” Gaulke said. “People can rail against the government but we are the government – of the people, by the people, for the people. People need to get the work done and stop worrying about ideology. It’s not helping anybody.”

Many voters view King as difficult to beat. And Democrats worry that King, a former member of their party, could siphon off Democratic votes and give Republicans an advantage.

“The reality is that I do think Angus King will win the general election,” said Elizabeth Simpson, a Democrat who said she’d vote for King if necessary to keep the Senate out of GOP hands.

The lack of participation led one voter to ponder the reasons.

“It’s obviously a sad sight,” said Alex Beinstein, who recently moved to the city to attend law school.

Beinstein, who is 23 years old, said young people seem disillusioned with the political process. That helped explain the low turnout, he said.

But Beinstein also acknowledged the impact of King. Residents who plan to vote for him in the November general election are staying away, he speculated.

Beinstein, however, feels King, who is 68, is too old to be an effective, long-term leader in the Senate. He voted for Dill.

John Richardson — 791-6324

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.