A political action committee dedicated to protecting women’s health and reproductive rights will make an unprecedented investment in Maine’s gubernatorial and legislative races this year.

The Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund will spend at least $500,000 to elect Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud as governor and dozens of other candidates to the Maine Legislature, the group announced Thursday. That investment dwarfs the $48,000 that the group spent in the last five elections combined.

The announcement underscores the importance of securing a strong turnout by women in the November election – especially for Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler. Both have been highlighting their stances on abortion and other issues important to women in the three-way battle with incumbent Republican Paul LePage.

In 2010, women represented 53.4 percent of registered voters in Maine but accounted for 60 percent of the electorate, according to the Maine Women’s Policy Center.

PAC Chairwoman Nicole Clegg said in a written statement that stakes for women are high this year, especially in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows closely held corporations to opt out of paying for birth control under the Affordable Care Act.

The court also ruled that some forms of free-speech buffer zones around abortion clinics are unconstitutional.

Clegg criticized LePage, who opposes abortion but has been a strong advocate against domestic violence, for vetoing the bipartisan Women’s Health Initiative, which would have given 13,000 low-income women access to preventive health care and birth control. He also vetoed legislation to expand Medicaid five times and reduced funding for family planning services, she said.

“Women’s health and rights are under attack around the nation. The stakes are high, and now is the time to make a stand,” Clegg said.

“Mike has worked with us over the years and is one of our most trusted allies,” she said of Michaud. “He is a strong, thoughtful and experienced leader, and the partner that we need in the Blaine House.”

The group also announced endorsements in nearly two dozen legislative races, nearly all of which went to Democrats. Senate minority leader Roger Katz was the only Republican to receive the group’s endorsement. Katz is being challenged by Democrat Rebecca Cornell du Houx.

Maine women care about jobs, welfare abuse, education and domestic violence, said Maine Republican Party Spokesman David Sorensen. “On all four, Governor LePage and Republicans have taken the lead and delivered real results, while liberal politicians fight to preserve the decades-old status quo in Maine government.”

Sorensen also sought to raise doubts about Michaud’s commitment to preserving a women’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

Michaud began his political career in the anti-abortion camp, but has since changed his position to support a women’s right to choose. He has been endorsed by NARAL Prochoice America.

Sorensen pointed to a 2008 interview with Maine Public Broadcasting Network in which Michaud appears to evade a question about his stance on abortion. He also highlighted Michaud’s vote to support an amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would have banned federally funded abortions.

“Congressman Michaud is a politician who simply cannot be trusted,” he added. “You may disagree with Gov. LePage, but at least you know where he stands on the issues.”

RECORD INVESTMENT FOR GROUP

Planned Parenthood’s campaign will include field operations, as well as television and online ads.

“The majority is going to be invested in the governor’s race,” Clegg said.

Planned Parenthood’s national PAC will make its own endorsements and investment in federal races, Clegg said, noting Planned Parenthood could spend as much as $24 million nationally this year.

She said Planned Parenthood has been ramping up campaign activities since the tea party’s rise in 2010, when LePage won the Blaine House and Republicans took control of the Legislature.

Nationally, conservative Republicans have sought to defund Planned Parenthood.
Clegg said more than 200 restrictions have been passed on abortion nationally since 2011.
“All of a sudden you started to see across the country governors defunding Planned Parenthood and (other) very targeted attacks to our organization,” she said.

Federal law prohibits nonprofit organizations that receive federal funding from contributing to political campaigns. However, the law allows nonprofit groups to form political action committees that are funded by donors.

The PAC is the political arm of the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, a nonprofit group that in fiscal 2014 received $359,000 in federal funds and $38,000 in state funds for non-abortion reproductive health services, such as birth control and cancer screenings, Clegg said.

The PAC’s investment in Maine will far out-pace previous election cycles.

In the past five elections, Planned Parenthood has spent nearly $48,000 to try and sway voters.

In 2010, the PAC raised and spent less than $6,000. In 2012, the PAC raised nearly $11,000 and spent nearly $8,600.

So far this year, the PAC had raised a little more than $235,161 as of July 25. The PAC had spent $63,000, most of which went to produce online ads in support of Michaud, leaving the group with nearly $174,000 on hand.

The PAC’s major donor this year is S. Donald Sussman, a financier and philanthropist who has already contributed $150,000.

Sussman is the majority owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

Sussman issued a written statement through a spokesperson about his donation.

“Like so many of us in Maine, I am very disheartened by the recent Supreme Court rulings, as well as the onslaught of legislative efforts across the country that will undermine a woman’s freedom to make her own personal medical decisions – a freedom that each and every one of us should enjoy,” Sussman said. “We need to elect lawmakers who won’t tolerate this sort of interference in women’s lives.”

The New York City-based Planned Parenthood Votes has contributed nearly $73,000 to the Maine PAC.

Another major contributor is Cumberland resident Margot Milliken. She donated $5,000 to the Planned Parenthood’s Maine-based PAC and $50,000 to the Planned Parenthood Votes PAC.

WHERE WOMEN STAND

A poll conducted in June for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram provides some insight into how women will vote.

Forty-eight percent of women surveyed said they planned to vote for Michaud, while 29 percent said they’d support LePage. Cutler was preferred by 17 percent.

Of the women surveyed, 31 percent said they voted for LePage in 2010 and 31 percent voted for Cutler. Only 14 percent voted for Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell.

As did men, women surveyed said jobs and the economy were the most important problems facing Maine.

In May, about 50 prominent women, including former U.S. Attorney Paula Silsby, a Republican, and Terry Hayes, a former Democratic House leader, announced they were supporting Cutler for governor.

In July, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who the chairs of the Democratic National Committee, headlined a “Women Take Action 2014” rally by Maine Democrats.
On Aug. 27, Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, will headline a “Women for Mike” rally.

State Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, co-chairs a Women for LePage coalition. In July, she hailed LePage’s efforts to combat domestic violence and his clear stance on issues.