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Cutler Wins BDN Endorsement in Maine Governor's Race - But Does it Matter?

Susan Sharon

BANGOR, Maine - At the headquarters of independent gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler, staffers are celebrating today's editorial endorsement of their candidate by the Bangor Daily News. Cutler will pick up all of the large daily newspaper endorsements in Maine this year -- but that's because the Bangor Daily News is the only paper that's still carrying on that tradition.

There's this thing about independent candidates for governor and the Bangor Daily News: Forty years ago it was the only paper to back James B. Longley, who surprised everyone with a victory. Then, in 1978 the BDN endorsed Baptist minister Herman "Buddy" Franklin - who lost. In 1994, it passed on independent Angus King and opted for Susan Collins - who also lost.

Then, four years ago, the BDN, along with the Lewiston Sun Journal, the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal and the Waterville Sentinel, endorsed Cutler. This year, the BDN is backing Cutler once again, and this time it is among the last of Maine's larger daily newspapers to continue that tradition. BDN Editorial Page Editor Susan Young says the decision was not made without considerable discussion.

"You have to wonder whether the tradition of political endorsements is something that's still valuable today," Young says.

Maine Today Media might have passed on candidate endorsements, even if the publisher's wife was not 1st District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. But the chain's flagship paper, the Portland Press Herald, and its sister publications in Augusta and Waterville, sidestepped the uncomfortable role of endorsing Pingree by simply adopting a policy that says: "We’ve decided that it’s not our job to tell you how to vote - we work for readers, not candidates."

At the Lewiston Sun Journal, Editor Rex Rhoades says the publication has decided to shelve its tradition of endorsements, like other papers across the country. But at the BDN, Young says the paper believes it has an obligation to it readers.

"We have access to candidates, we get to meet with them one on one, we have coverage that our reporters have done," Young says, "and it seems a valuable thing for us to do to draw on those meetings and that coverage to use our voice as an asset."

The BDN is bucking a national trend, according to Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. "I do think the times are changing in the sense that the notion that the newspaper should be the arbiter of these elections," Edmonds says.

"I tend to disagree with that," says Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. Brewer says that the newspaper endorsements still matter - particularly among a certain segment of voters. "I think that newspaper endorsements do still matter - maybe not to all voters, but I think particularly for voters who may be undecided in a particular race or on a particular ballot question."

In addition to the BDN endorsement, Eliot Cutler is also backed by the Portsmouth Herald and several York County newspapers.