10/08/2012 11:41 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Maine Women Flex Voting Muscle in Key U.S. Senatorial Race

Maine Women Demand Yes/No Answers from U.S. Senatorial Candidates

Maine women know how to corral politicians into definitive positions. Unlike poor Jim Lehrer in the Obama-Romney debate, moderator Anne Schink brooked no misbehavior from five candidates vying for Olympia Snowe's open Senate seat at the Maine Women's Policy Center's Forum on issues affecting Maine's women and girls.

The candidates had little waffling room in two-minute responses on weighty issues like abortion, the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Social Security, or in yes/no answers to rapid-fire questions.

Yet for Maine women looking for clear answers, "The elephant [was] not in the room," said independent candidate and two-term former governor Angus King. King was alluding to the empty chair left by GOP candidate and Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, who decided at the last minute to skip the forum, opting instead for a Maine Lobstermen's Association event.

Forum organizer Eliza Townsend of the Maine Women's Policy Center said that women were entitled to know where the candidates stand. Townsend cited drastic cuts by Maine's Republican-controlled legislature to Maine safety net programs that are disproportionately affecting women and children, including reductions to the state's welfare program (TANF), health care for the working poor (MaineCare), family planning, child care assistance, and Head Start. Maine women were also alarmed by attempts to limit women's access to contraception and Rep. Todd Akins's "legitimate rape" comment, Townsend said.

Maine women wield political power. At 53 percent of registered voters, they will be a potent force in the November election when they are expected to exceed male voters as they have in every Presidential election since 1964. This is good news for Barack Obama who leads in the state, thanks to a 15-point edge over Mitt Romney among women.

At the forum, King and Democrat Cynthia Dill declared their support for safe, legal abortion and Roe v. Wade. This pleased Ruth Lockhart, director of the Mabel Wadsworth Women's Health Center in Bangor, who said the candidates' support reflected Maine's enduring pro-choice tradition that includes Republican Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Recent attempts to restrict access to abortion have failed in Maine despite the 2010 election of Tea Party Republican Governor Paul LePage and Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.

Summers position on abortion is murky. King seized on Summers's absence, attacking his rival as a flip-flopper on abortion. In a statement to Maine Public Radio, Summers attempted to explain statements made during the primary limiting his support for abortion to cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

With so much at stake for Maine women and children, Summers' no-show did not sit well with Laura Fortman, executive director of the Frances Perkins Center. Fortman wanted to hear from Summers on economic issues disproportionately affecting women and children, describing his last minute withdrawal as "outrageous."

Ned McCann, executive director of Maine Children's Alliance, agreed. "The big question of the night is: Where's Charlie?" Citing Summers's recent withdrawal from other debates, McCann surmised that Summers must be "afraid to answer hard questions."

King currently holds a 22-point lead over Summers, with Democrat Cynthia Dill trailing Summers by 16 points in a race flooded with outside money. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $500,000 to the Americans Elect super PAC that recently spent $700,000on King ads. With Summers lagging in the polls, a conservative D.C. group has run ads supporting Dill in an effort to siphon votes from King.

While Maine women are keen supporters of health care programs including the Affordable Care Act, they aren't lining up behind Dill who is the only women in the race. Joanna Bridges, 23, and Ali Tozier, 26, both law students and King supporters, believed it was more important to elect an independent who can bridge the partisan divide. Fellow law student Betsy Boardman, 33, disagreed. "I like Dill's spunk, and I agree with her that we need more women in elected office."

Conservatives have raised Maine women's heckles more than once since the Republican take-over in 2010. In June 2011, Governor LePage signed a law banning election-day voter registration, originally enacted in 1978 with bipartisan support. Experts say that the convenience of registering at the polls contributes to state's high voter turnout, which routinely ranks Maine among the highest in the nation.

This affront to suffrage did not sit well with Maine's League of Women Voters that rapidly gathered a coalition of advocacy groups to reverse the ban. The coalition collected nearly 70,000 signatures in just a few months to put a "People's Veto" referendum on the November 2011 ballot. Despite an influx of outside money including a $250,000 donation from a group tied to the Koch Brothers, the People's Veto passed by a 20-point margin, thus restoring election-day voter registration.