The 2012 legislative election has achieved a number of firsts.
For the first time, outside groups have spent $3.47 million on state races, shattering the $1.5 million record set in 2010.
For the first time, outside groups have spent over $100,000 on eight state senate races, including three races over $200,000.
For the first time, outside groups have spent nearly a half million dollars on a single state senate race — District 32 in Bangor — where Republican incumbent Nichi Farnham faces Democratic challenger Geoffrey Gratwick.
It’s unclear if the flood of money, much of it funneled from out-of-state interests, is the new norm for legislative elections. However, the costliest-ever battle for the State House is likely to have policy-making inplications for the 126th Legislature.
A large portion of the campaign spending has been directed by Democratic and Republican party committees, which currently lead the list of group spending.
While the parties have Maine-based donors, large outside interests are also bankrolling the party spending.
For Republicans and their political action committee surrogates, the largest donations have come from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group funded by insurance, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, and other industries.
The committee has now given $795,000 to Maine PACs this election cycle, nearly double the $400,000 it spent in 2010.
For Democrats and their PAC allies, the biggest donors and spenders have been organized labor. The Washington, D.C.-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has been one of the largest contributors, giving $405,000 to Democratic PACs. The group, bankrolled largely by national labor groups, gave just $81,000 to fund Maine races in 2010.
The interest by out-of-state groups reflects a national trend of national groups spending more to influence state races. Denise Roth Barber, an analyst with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, recently told the Portland Press Herald that national groups see spending on state races as low-risk, high gain.
“If you can turn a few seats and gain control of the legislative body, you can have a say in the decision making,” Barber said.
The national groups are also looking for a policy payoff. With corporations spending big via the Republican committee, the resulting policy legislation could reflect a wide range of interests.
For the union-backed Democratic committee, it’s likely interest is a strengthening of worker protection laws and to beat back right-to-work legislation that drains union resources.
Which group advances their interests hinges on who controls the Legislature.
The election will also determine the future composition of the Legislature.
The next group of lawmakers are slated to take up legislative redistricting, the process of redrawing legislative district boundaries that will likely be as contentious as the congressional redistricting was in 2011.
There are 186 legislative races, but the swing districts will determine which party wins the State House.
The third party spending helps illuminate the battleground races.
Groups are spending significant dollars in 11 state Senate districts. Eight have exceeded $100,000 in outside spending.
In 2010, previously the most expensive legislative election for third party groups, five races topped $100,000 and only one exceeded $200,000.
So far, three senate races have exceeded $200,000.
However, the most expensive, the District 32 race in Bangor between Farnham and Gratwick, has hit $438,697, more than two and half times the $162,500 spent there in 2010.
The second most expensive senate race is in Scarborough and Gorham. Groups have spent over $280,000 on the District 6 contest between Democrat Jim Boyle and Republican Ruth Summers.
Two senate seats in Androscoggin County are third and fourth on the expenditure list. Groups have spent over $253,300 in District 17, a contest between Republican incumbent Sen. Garrett Mason and Democratic challenger Colleen Quint.
In District 15, Republican Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello and Democratic challenger John Cleveland have seen over $220,000 in mailers and political ads from outside groups.
In Knox County, the District 22 senate race has also cracked the top 5 in outside spending. Groups have spent over $183,400 on the race between incumbent Republican Sen. Chris Rector and Democrat Edward Mazurek.
Spending has targeted senate races in District 25 between Republican incumbent Thomas Martin and Democrat Colleen Lachowicz ($182,700); District 20 between incumbent Democrat Chris Johnson and Republican Les Fossel ($169,000); and District 11 between independent incumbent Dick Woodbury and Republican Chris Tyll ($111,400).
The battle for the House of Representatives is also setting spending records.
Over $1.3 million has been spent by outside groups, which is close to the total spent on all legislative races in 2010.
Dozens of House races are in play.
More than 10 have seen over $30,000 in PAC spending. In 2010, only two races exceeded $10,000.
Two races stand out.
PACs have spent nearly $70,000 on the District 5 race in Presque Isle between Republican incumbent Michael Willette and Democrat Robert Saucier.
More than $60,500 has been spent in District 128 in Scarborough between Republican Heather Sirocki and Jean-Marie Caterina.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:
The sidebar in this story has been clarified to reflect that legislators receive a two-year stipend.