Maine is following a national trend that shows political parties and outside interest groups are spending more money than in past elections to influence the makeup of state legislatures.  

Interest groups unaffiliated with individual candidates have already spent more than $1.3 million on the current election and are on pace to surpass the record $1.5 million spent in 2010. Campaign finance experts say there are several factors behind the increase, but the biggest is that national organizations realize that controlling statehouses is a relatively inexpensive way to advance policy agendas.

Some examples include attempting to reduce business regulations, gain tax breaks funded with a reduction in welfare spending, change health insurance laws, or change employment or land use regulations.

How those agendas unfold in Maine will be determined at the ballot box. Recent analyses by the Portland Press Herald show that 22 outside groups are spending big on mailers, television ads and canvassing to influence voters’ decisions.

The efforts have concentrated on more than a half-dozen state Senate races and dozens of House contests that could determine whether Republicans hold their majority in the Legislature. Groups have already spent more than $778,000 on Senate races, a figure that eclipses the $685,000 spent in 2008 on all legislative contests.

The dynamic is different in other states. However, a recent study determined that independent spending — election spending by groups unafiliated with individual candidates — is on the rise.

The 20-state study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics suggested that independent spending increased by 38 percent from 2006 to 2010. The actual increase is difficult to determine because of uneven, sometimes nonexistent, disclosure laws.  

Denise Roth Barber, an analyst with the institute, said she expects the upward trend to continue. Barber said the groups no longer just focus on federal races — it’s relatively easy to affect the outcome of a state legislative race.

“The gains of influencing the outcome are pretty high,” Barber said. “If you can turn a few seats and gain control of the legislative body, you can have a say in the decision making.”

The study showed that outside spending in Maine is modest compared with some other states. But the increase here is laying waste to the long-held belief that Maine elections are insulated from outside influences.

So why do groups choose not to contribute directly individual candidates?

Barber said there are several reasons. First, many states, including Maine, cap donations to candidates; there are no donation or spending restrictions on outside groups.

Also, such spending allows the groups to control the political message rather than leave those decisions to candidates.

Outside groups can also go negative with fewer repercussions than candidates can. The top five most targeted state Senate races have been dominated by attack mailers and television ads slamming everything from a candidate’s business dealings, legislative record and video gaming habits. The candidates have conducted mostly positive campaigns.

Most worrisome, perhaps, is the idea that groups may be spending on elections to gain influence over policy. 

Most campaign finance analysts agree that outside interests wouldn’t spend the money if there wasn’t a payoff. But identifying what the goals are is difficult because so many different groups fund parties and the surrogate nonprofit groups through which they spend on state races.

Financial backing for Maine parties and their proxy political action committees can be traced back to national interest groups interested in crafting Maine laws and regulations.

Organizations such as the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, backed by national unions and other industries, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, backed by insurance companies, big tobacco and other industries, have both committed big dollars to 2012 to national and Maine legislative races.

The Democratic group has given $500,000 to state-based PACs, while the Republican organization has pumped in over $330,000. Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, said donors to those groups know their money is going to assist a political party, but there is almost no way to prove the groups earmark their donations for a specific candidate. And there is almost no way to calculate how much influence this spending actually buys.

“It’s not impossible,” Malbin said. “But if a large number of people give to the common pot, then the state legislator on the other end doesn’t have any particular feeling of gratitude to any particular contributor.”

Staff Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@mainetoday.com

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