AUGUSTA — The state ethics board voted Wednesday to raise contribution limits for individuals in the 2014 gubernatorial race, opening the door to major new donations not only for independent Eliot Cutler, but for Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud as well.
A campaign finance watchdog group criticized the decision, saying it enlarges the role of money in elections and effectively sets a higher contribution limit for all candidates that will be difficult to reduce.
The five-member board’s unanimous decision came in response to a ruling Friday by a federal judge that paved the way for Cutler to double the amount he can collect from individual donors. Under Maine law, unenrolled, nonparty candidates like Cutler – who don’t face primary elections – can receive no more than $1,500 per donor. Party candidates like Michaud and LePage, who face both primary and general election races, can receive up to $3,000 per donor – or $1,500 in the primary and another $1,500 in the general election.
U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby granted a preliminary injunction in federal court in Portland that allows Cutler supporters to contribute a maximum of $3,000. The ruling came in response to a complaint by four Cutler donors who challenged the law, saying it unfairly benefits major-party candidates.
The section of campaign finance law in question had never been challenged in Maine. Before this year, there had never been an uncontested gubernatorial primary in the state, and the rules were designed to ensure that party candidates who participated in one had enough money to effectively run two campaigns, one for the primary election and another for the general contest.
In voting Wednesday to raise the limit to $3,000 for Cutler, the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices acknowledged that the increase also would benefit Michaud and LePage. Under the panel’s vote, Michaud and LePage can collect $3,000 contributions from individuals who gave no money during the primary campaign.
Justin Schair, the Cutler campaign’s deputy manager, said the campaign was pleased with the commission’s decision and glad that there is now parity in system.
The Michaud campaign also praised the commission’s action.
“We’re pleased with the ethics commission’s decision to treat all gubernatorial candidates equally in the November election,” Michaud for Maine Campaign Manager Matt McTighe said in a written statement.
LePage’s campaign called the ethics commission’s decision fair and said it will create a more “uniform” approach to handling campaign contributions.
“We’re very happy. It creates a level playing field between all three candidates,” Alex Willette, a spokesman for LePage’s campaign, said Wednesday night.
Andrew Bossie, executive director of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a campaign-finance watchdog group, noted that the court ruling and the resulting action by the commission effectively increased the individual donor limit from $1,500 per election to $3,000.
“We’ve been longtime supporters of low contribution limits because it makes politicians more responsive to the people,” said Bossie, adding that the decision could set a precedent and make it difficult to reduce the individual limit in the future.
State campaign finance records show that 351 individuals already have given the maximum $1,500 to the Cutler campaign. If all of those donors decide to double their contributions to the new maximum of $3,000, Cutler would collect another $526,500.
The impact of Wednesday’s decision on the Michaud and LePage campaigns is less clear. It’s likely that both campaigns already have identified and solicited contributions from individuals with the means to give at the $3,000 level. Many of those potential donors already may have given the $1,500 permitted in the primary election, so they may now be able to give only another $1,500.
Where the decision could benefit Michaud and LePage is with out-of-state donors, who are playing an increasing role as the race for the Blaine House gains national attention not only from the Democratic and Republican parties, but also from well-funded independent groups.
The board action Wednesday applies only to the 2014 gubernatorial election. Any longer-term changes to contribution limits or other major components of Maine campaign finance law would have to be adopted by the Legislature.
Bossie’s group had supported an alternative solution. Under that plan, an individual who gave $1,500 to Cutler before the June 11 primary could have given up to $1,500 more before the November election. An individual who did not give Cutler money before June 11 could have given up to $1,500.
Present limits for donations after the primary for Michaud and LePage would have continued to apply in Bossie’s proposal. That would have meant that an individual could give no more than $1,500 to either of those candidates regardless of whether they contributed before June 11.
However, the order by Judge Hornby compelled the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit and the ethics board to agree on a settlement. If they didn’t, the commission would have had to submit a counterproposal by Friday, likely prolonging the legal case.
Melissa A. Hewey, the attorney representing the four Cutler supporters who brought the court complaint, said the alternative plan did not have the support of her clients – Amy Woodhouse, Richard Tobey Scott, William Hastings and J. Thomas Franklin.
“My clients feel that this (increasing to $3,000 for all contributors) is the fairest way to go,” she said. “We’re changing the rules midstream and this is the best way to do that.”
Kate Knox, an attorney for the Maine Democratic Party, also backed the commission’s decision.
Walter McKee, chairman of the commission, acknowledged Bossie’s criticism, but said the panel was put “into a box” by the court order.
Hornby’s ruling follows a precedent set earlier this year in Colorado. In January, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Colorado law that allowed Democratic and Republican candidates to collect $400 per donor, but limited unenrolled candidates to $200.
Cutler’s campaign had drawn attention to the funding disparity for months.
The independent has actually raised more money than his opponents. However, nearly $1 million of that money has come from his own pockets.
According to the most recent campaign filings, covering donations through July 15, Cutler had raised slightly more than $2 million, compared with just under $2 million for Michaud and about $1.3 million for LePage.
Cutler also has vastly outspent the major-party candidates. Through July 15, he had spent $1.5 million, Michaud had spent $916,000 and LePage had spent just $326,700, although both benefit greatly from party support.