It’s no secret that 2010 was a golden year for Maine Republicans. Not only did voters elect Gov. Paul LePage; they also put his party in control of the Legislature.
The State House sweep reflected a broad strategy in which groups like the Republican Governors Association funneled national contributions and manpower into relatively cheap and easy-to-influence state races. Recent accounts in local and national media, along with activity already underway in Maine, show that Republicans are hoping for a rerun in 2014.
That strategy is buoyed by a lopsided fundraising advantage that Republican groups now hold over their Democratic counterparts, including the Democratic Governors Association. All of the groups are active in Maine, or are expected to be before Election Day.
Groups like the two governors associations combined to spend more than $3.9 million in the 2010 Maine gubernatorial race, up from $1.3 million in 2006, according to data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. This year’s spending is expected to dwarf the 2010 total. One group partially funded by the Democratic Governors Association has already pledged $2 million in television ads supporting Democratic candidate Mike Michaud.
The money spent on the 2010 Maine race was lower than in some states with more expensive media markets. Florida, for example, saw $31.8 million in spending by outside groups.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the head of the Republican Governors Association who has headlined a fundraiser for LePage, has said the organization is committed here. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time up here and resources here,” Christie said during a brief visit to Maine in May.
Danny Kanner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, downplayed his organization’s financial disadvantage and stressed its commitment to Maine.
“Those (2010) games will not work this time,” he said of the Republican strategy. “This is a top priority for the DGA, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure Paul LePage is a one-term governor.”
The Republican Governors Association, or RGA, spent more than $1 million helping to elect LePage in 2010. The Democratic Governors Association spent just under $500,000 on the campaign of Libby Mitchell, who finished third behind LePage and independent Eliot Cutler.
Kanner said 2010 was a different race and Maine is also different from other states, where successful campaigns are more costly. He disputed a story published Sunday in The New York Times that highlighted the potential impact of the party fundraising disparity. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the DGA, has said he expects the group will be outspent two-to-one by Election Day.
So far, Kanner said, the DGA’s Maine-based political action committee has outspent the RGA Maine PAC through the last finance reporting period. Also, the DGA has contributed $150,000 to Maine Forward, a political action committee funded by liberal interest groups and labor unions that booked the $2 million ad buy for Michaud.
“After four years of embarrassments and extremism, there is a united opposition to Gov. Paul LePage,” Kanner said. “And it is united behind Mike Michaud.”
Republicans are confident that Kanner is wrong. In public and private statements, Republican officials said they believe that Cutler, who is running again, will eventually slice into Michaud’s small lead. A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald after the June 10 primary showed Michaud had a four-point lead, within the poll’s margin of error, and Cutler was a distant third. The same poll showed 48 percent of Mainers were either disengaged from the race or hadn’t made up their minds.
The emphasis on state-level races, fueled by congressional gridlock that blocks policy advances at the federal level, is captured in the financial activity of party-affiliated groups. In 2006 and 2008, both governors organizations spent modestly to influence state races, between $25 million and $36 million. In 2010, RGA spending nearly quadrupled to $131.8 million, while DGA spending increased to $64.7 million.
This year the RGA is expected to shatter the 2010 spending total and has reported raising $100 million through June.
Kanner said the DGA has raised more money this year than ever before. The group has not released its latest fundraising numbers through the 18 months ending in June. It had raised more than $40 million through March 25, according to Internal Revenue Service records.
Kanner said that although the Republican group has drawn more from its donors, the DGA also recognized that the “action was in the states.”
“It’s actually the governors who are implementing the policies that are getting argued about in these federal elections but are never actually delivered on,” he said. “These races matter more.”
In Maine, the 2010 spending supported an unprecedented Republican ground operation. That effort, built around phone banking and a voter turnout drive, benefited not only LePage, but also Republican candidates who captured control of the Legislature.
A similar effort is underway right now. At a June rally in Bangor, Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett promised an election operation as “big as our ideas” and as energetic as its candidates.
The RGA is expected to strongly support the effort. The group is already involved in the Maine gubernatorial race, having spent $350,000 so far, some of which appears to be for operative training for the Maine Republican Party. It’s also paid $7,000 to Jeff Berkowitz, a noted opposition researcher credited with helping Republican presidential hopefuls and damaging the Democratic presidential campaign of John Kerry in 2004.
The Republican fundraising advantage has prompted questions about whether Democrats have been slow to embrace the state-led strategy. In The New York Times story published Sunday, a former DGA chief, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, said traditional liberal donors still preferred to funnel their money to congressional contests.
“It was my experience in making some of these phone calls that a lot of our individual contributors enjoyed the fact that they could have an 18-year relationship with a senator they contributed to, but they could only have at most an eight-year relationship with a governor they contributed to,” O’Malley told the Times.
Christie has said the RGA fundraising advantage will help protect the Republican governors who won in 2010, and perhaps, allow the party to play offense and install a few more.