Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler has long said that he expects to self-finance much of his bid for the Blaine House, as he did in 2010.
He is, but at a faster rate and under challenging circumstances.
On Tuesday, the attorney from Cape Elizabeth loaned his campaign another $100,000, according to a recent finance report, bringing his total cash contributions to $500,000. The loan put Cutler ahead of his self-financing pace in 2010, when he spent more than $1.6 million on a second-place finish to Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
The latest loan, his fifth so far, raises questions about Cutler’s progress – and cash ceiling – in what is expected to be a costly and competitive race through Election Day.
The finances of a gubernatorial race may seem esoteric to the general public, but fundraising and the ability to spend money are critical in a campaign. Money lets a candidate send messages, whether with television and radio ads or mailers, and pays for a staff to raise more money.
It isn’t always everything. Dave Brat unseated U.S. House Republican leader Eric Cantor of Virginia on Tuesday with $123,000 and tea party activists, while Cantor spent $5.4 million.
But without enough money, even an established candidate like Cutler can languish. And so far, Cutler is losing the money race.
On May 30, his campaign reported that it had raised $1.3 million, second only to Democrat Mike Michaud, who had brought in $1.62 million. There was just one problem: Cutler’s campaign had spent nearly all the money it had raised.
Through May 27, the campaign had just $40,000 in cash. Michaud had $864,000, and LePage had $758,000.
The cash balance puts Tuesday’s $100,000 loan in context. Without it, Cutler may not have been able to pay his staff or other expenses associated with his campaign.
Cutler has spent more than $1.25 million since his campaign committee formed in January 2013. LePage has spent about $261,000, the least of the three major candidates. Michaud has spent $756,000, much of it on fundraising services.
What do those numbers mean? From Cutler’s perspective, not much.
“We’re going to have the resources it takes to win this campaign,” he said.
Citing an unwillingness to divulge its strategy, Cutler’s campaign would not answer more specific questions. Is there a ceiling for his self-financing? Is the donor pool dry? Has the money he’s spent already affected the campaign’s ability to get on television or broadcast its message?
His opponents are answering for him.
Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for Michaud, said the money race mirrors the real race.
“For us, the finance reports have shown that Mike has a strong grass-roots base of fundraising,” she said. “As Eliot continues to slip in the polls, he’s also having donors unwilling to give him money. Right now this campaign of his is largely being self-financed. It appears from the financing reports that he had to write another check to simply pay his bills.
“We think it speaks to his viability,” she said. “This is just another example of what we’ve been seeing all along, that this is a tight two-way race between Mike and Gov. Paul LePage.”
Cutler has trailed Michaud and LePage in the polls, coming in at 15 percent to 19 percent. His campaign says he’s in a far better position than he was at the same point in 2010. On June 10, 2010, a Rasmussen poll put Cutler’s support at 7 percent. That slowly climbed toward 10 percent in late September. Cutler’s struggle then, say political observers, was that the public didn’t know him.
People know him better now. A poll this spring by the Portland-based Pan Atlantic SMS Group showed that nearly 69 percent of respondents had an opinion of Cutler. The remaining 31 percent either didn’t know him or didn’t have an opinion of him.
By contrast, Democratic senatorial candidate Shenna Bellows has a name recognition problem. More than 85 percent of the poll respondents didn’t know her.
The Cutler campaign says the poll shows that there’s room to grow. That may require money.
Cutler has loaned his campaign $110,000 more than he had at the same point four years ago. And the money has been spent differently.
In 2010, Cutler had spent more than $130,000 on television ads and production, according to state records. In 2014, he has spent nearly $28,000 on television and production. Most of his expenditures have been on consultants and social media ads.
So far, Cutler has tried to compensate with what’s known as earned media: news coverage in television, radio and print. He has made repeated, unsuccessful calls for early debates with his rivals, a platform that would bring free television and media coverage.
The independent has raised nearly 2½ times as much money as he had at the same point in 2010 – $1.3 million, up from $539,000 – but this campaign has been running nearly twice as long. That means the campaign has had to spend more money, more often.
Cutler’s rivals keep drawing donations. In the days before Tuesday’s primary elections, Michaud received $50,000 and LePage took in $30,700. Without his $100,000 loan, Cutler drew $4,000.
Maine’s campaign finance law handicaps Cutler, because he can’t collect as much from any individual donor as his party-affiliated rivals can.
Maine law allows party candidates to accept $1,500 contributions from individuals for both the June primary and the general election, even if those candidates don’t face primary challengers.
Neither LePage nor Michaud had a primary challenger, but each candidate will be allowed to accept as much as $3,000 from an individual. As an independent, Cutler can collect no more than $1,500 per donor.