From where attorney Melissa Hewey sits, this is not about Eliot Cutler.
“I’m not looking at the candidate,” insisted Hewey one day after she filed a lawsuit in Portland’s U.S. District Court on behalf of four Cutler supporters who claim Maine law prevents them from putting enough of their money where their mouths are. “What I’m looking at is the rights of the donors. … It’s not a Cutler matter to me.”
Ah, but in the court of public opinion, it’s very much a Cutler matter. And once again, that matter is money.
Monday’s court filing pits Hewey’s clients – Amy Woodhouse and Richard Tobey Scott, both of Freeport, William Hastings of Falmouth and J. Thomas Franklin of Portland – against a Maine law that imposes a $1,500 cap on donations to independent gubernatorial candidates. At the same time, the law allows major-party candidates to rake in $3,000 per donor.
The rationale: Party candidates like Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Republican Gov. Paul LePage need to get through a primary before running in the general election, thus they’re entitled to $1,500 per election.
The problem with that rationale: Neither Michaud nor LePage faced opposition in last month’s gubernatorial primaries. Moreover, nothing in Maine election law prevents them from taking all those primary donations and simply rolling them into their fall campaign, in effect giving their top-shelf donors twice the impact of Cutler’s.
The lawsuit is on a fast track – with the governor’s race already in the back stretch, the plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would allow them to get their checkbooks back out while there’s still time.
And make no mistake about it, there’s real money at stake here: If each of the 373 people who so far have contributed $1,500 to Cutler were to suddenly double down on their guy, $559,500 in additional donations would flow directly into the campaign’s coffers.
So it matters. A lot. And if a recent federal court ruling that threw out a similar law in Colorado is any indication, Hewey’s clients have at least a fair shot at spending more of their hard-earned money on the independently wealthy independent who trailed both of his opponents by more than 20 points in a recent Portland Press Herald poll.
Intriguing? No doubt. Yet even as it lands in the court’s inbox, the lawsuit simultaneously contributes to an ever-widening and potentially damaging perception that Camp Cutler, with the election now less than four months away, is running on financial fumes.
To wit: Last month, Cutler injected $100,000 of his own money into his campaign, bringing to $500,000 the amount he’s spent so far this time around to blaze a path to the Blaine House. (Put another way, he’s outpacing the $1.6 million he shelled out in his second-place finish to LePage four years ago.)
To wit: Just over two weeks ago, Cutler sent out an email blast to potential supporters promising to match, dollar for dollar, any contributions they send in by July 15. A common fundraising tactic perhaps, but to many the plea still carried a whiff of desperation.
To wit: At the end of the last financial reporting period, Cutler had spent all but $40,000 of the $1.3 million (including his own money) raised by his campaign. This contrasted with $864,000 in cash on hand for Michaud and $758,000 for LePage.
All of which brings us to that question that has dogged Cutler since he decided to go the independent route and thus reap none of the advantages (see: party apparatus – logistics/fundraising) enjoyed by his two opponents: Is there a ceiling beyond which he will not go in his quest to become Maine’s chief executive?
“Am I going to spend $40 million? No,” Cutler replied in a telephone interview on Tuesday. He quickly added, “It’s sort of like I’ll know it when I see it.”
Cutler attributes all the whispering about his balance sheet to Democrats who he says have been working hard to undermine his campaign “ever since I told them I wouldn’t run as a Democrat.”
“This notion that Cutler is desperate? Let me tell you something,” he said. “People ought to ask me if I’m desperate. I’m not desperate. People ought to ask me if I’m scared. I’m not scared. People ought to ask me if I’m afraid we’re going to run out of money. I’m not afraid we’re going to run out of money.”
Fair enough. Still, if politics indeed begins and ends with finding the right message and sticking scrupulously to it, it’s worth noting that Cutler just used, in rapid succession, the words “desperate,” “scared” and “afraid of running out of money.”
Which brings us back to this week’s lawsuit.
Cutler said the campaign’s only involvement in the court complaint was to steer donors, whenever they’ve complained about not being able to give more, to Hewey at Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon, which handles the campaign’s legal affairs.
So why wait until now to turn that into legal action? If this case, as Hewey insists, is rooted far more in the right to free speech (via one’s checkbook) than in the daily machinations of the Cutler campaign, why didn’t her four plaintiffs troop into court months ago?
(The Colorado precedent everyone’s now crowing about, after all, was decided way back in January.)
“Earlier on in the campaign, they weren’t feeling the frustration they’re feeling now,” replied Hewey. “You’ve got to wait until somebody feels enough frustration to actually go to court and do it.”
The operative word there is frustration. And whether that frustration is about not being able to donate more, or not getting enough bang out of the bucks they’ve already contributed, the bottom line remains the same.
This lawsuit, for all its free speech implications, is now woven into the Cutler narrative.
And with November fast approaching, that narrative begins and ends with money.