A national group that includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pumping more than $1 million into Maine to help elect Angus King to the U.S. Senate, a spokeswoman for Americans Elect said Friday.
Americans Elect, which tried unsuccessfully to mount a nonpartisan presidential campaign this year, aired the first of two television ads Friday promoting King as a solution to the gridlock in Congress.
“We need jobs, not partisan gridlock,” an unnamed man says in one of the 30-second ads. “Angus can change that.”
The arrival of a powerful new player escalates an already intense advertising war, and pushes outside spending on Maine’s Senate race to nearly $4 million with a month to go before Election Day.
Bloomberg, an independent, was one of three wealthy donors who pitched in a total of $1.75 million so Americans Elect could support King, who is considered the country’s most prominent independent candidate.
Bloomberg contributed $500,000, Americans Elect’s founder Peter Ackerman put in $500,000 and Passport Capital’s founder John Burbank contributed $750,000, according to Ileana Wachtel, national press secretary for Americans Elect.
“We are solely focusing on this race,” Wachtel said. “It’s really a moment in our country’s history when it is critical that we elect independent-minded leaders to higher office.”
King has been the focus of more than $2 million worth of attack ads by groups that hope to put a Republican majority in the Senate, and his lead over Republican Charlie Summers has narrowed in recent polls.
The new television ad is the first from an outside group to explicitly support King. However, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent about $400,000 so far on anti-Summers ads — and is extending its ad buy — in an apparent effort to protect King’s lead in the polls and prevent a Republican victory.
While Americans Elect clearly hopes to shore up King’s lead, the ad campaign opens him up to political criticism.
The former governor has steadily criticized the flow of outside money that’s aimed at influencing Maine’s Senate race.
“We did not know about this ad nor did we ask for it,” King’s spokeswoman, Crystal Canney, said in a written statement. “All of these ads … are exactly what Angus warned about in June. We called for all candidates to disavow the ads and Charlie Summers refused.”
Canney said the King campaign “will not unilaterally disarm. The time has passed when this money could have been kept out of Maine. … You can thank the (National Republican Senatorial Committee) and Charlie Summers for turning this into an ad war.”
Drew Brandewie, spokesman for Summers, said the real Angus King is revealing himself, now that his lead has dropped in the polls.
Brandewie issued a written statement saying King criticized out-of-state money and negative ads, then went to Washington, D.C., to raise money from lobbyists and started criticizing Summers in an ad and in news releases.
Now, King is getting help from an outside group like those he has been criticizing, Brandewie said.
“The term ‘flip-flop’ is far too gracious a way to describe the cynical duplicity of Angus King’s broken promises,” Brandewie said.
Americans Elect tried to hold an online primary and nominate a presidential candidate to challenge the two-party system this year. Its entire board of directors resigned in June when that effort failed, according to Wachtel and Eliot Cutler, who ran for governor in Maine in 2010 and was on the Americans Elect board.
The group’s founder and CEO reconstituted the group this summer to help independent-minded candidates in state races.
Cutler is now a state chair of King’s Senate campaign. He said he has not had any involvement with the national group since June, although he was named as a director on the group’s website Friday.
The Maine Republican Party said Friday that it is seeking a federal investigation into whether the ad campaign violates election law, in part because Cutler is listed as a director of the group at the same time he is working in the King campaign. Outside groups cannot coordinate with the candidates they support.
Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said in a written statement that “sinking poll numbers are no excuse for violating the law, which is what Mr. King and his out-of-state supporters appear to have done here.”
Cutler denied any involvement with the ad. Wachtel called the complaint baseless.
“Eliot Cutler is not on the board. He resigned June 26 before any expenditure was made or before any funds were raised, and that is in strict compliance with the law,” Wachtel said. She said the website was being updated.
Anthony Corrado, a political science professor at Colby College in Waterville and a nationally known expert on campaign finance, said it would be hard to prove illegal coordination even if Cutler was still active with Americans Elect.
“You really have to have a material involvement in the decision (and) communication with the candidate about the specific decision,” he said.
Corrado said Americans Elect does not appear to be spending money in other states, and Maine’s race is unique.
“Angus King is certainly the most prominent candidate in the country right now that meets their criteria,” Corrado said.
Bowdoin College political science professor Michael Franz said the support may help King counter the attack ads, but it also will create some political headaches.
“I think it’s just going to create another line of attack against Angus King by the Republicans in the coming weeks,” Franz said.
Americans Elect may have protected King from some of that criticism by voluntarily disclosing its donors. Groups that paid for the anti-King attack ads, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have not.
Cutler said Friday that Americans Elect is different from the other outside groups because it is promoting a candidate rather than attacking anyone.
“I know (King) didn’t want outside money in Maine’s race,” Cutler said, but “at least it’s saying something positive on behalf of a candidate.”
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: