November 18, 2013

State House Notebook: Outside groups spending big on Maine elections

The state's 2012 legislative election was a record year for spending by outside groups, topping $3.7 million.

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

It’s often said that the public doesn’t pay a lot of attention to state legislatures or the individuals trying to get elected to them. That’s also historically been true of interest groups, corporations and wealthy individuals attempting to shape public policy.

In the past, their attention and money have been directed to congressional and presidential elections.

But the focus is changing – in a big way.

Last week, The Center for Public Integrity published a lengthy report about the prevalence of spending by outside groups in gubernatorial and legislative contests. The report offered broad national context for what Mainers are already experiencing and reading about in the media: There’s an unprecedented amount of money spent by a relatively select group of interest groups and corporations to influence elections with mailers and television, radio and Web advertisements.

The 2012 Maine legislative election was a record year for spending by outside groups, topping $3.7 million. The sum not only dwarfed the previous record of $1.5 million spent in 2010, but equals the cost of stipends for 147.5 of the 186 lawmakers in the Maine Legislature. Or, to look at it another way, it was just over $5.25 for every one of the approximately 700,000 Mainers who cast a ballot in 2012.

Spending was even more impressive in New Hampshire, where groups spent $24 for each of the 752,000 registered voters in last year’s New Hampshire gubernatorial election.

According to the analysis by The Center for Public Integrity, the spending in Maine was part of at least $209 million spent in 38 states. The report stopped at 38 because 12 states have campaign disclosure laws that are so weak that it’s impossible to tell who is spending how much to influence an election, and potentially shape state laws.

Last year, Denise Roth Barber, an analyst with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, told the Portland Press Herald that national groups see spending on state races as low risk, high gain. If a group can turn a few seats and gain control of the legislature, it can have a say in the decision making, she said. The anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist confirmed that theory to The Center for Public Integrity.

“Right now in Washington, D.C., as long as you have a divided government, there’s only so much you can do,” Norquist said. “More of the important decisions – the whole conversation of tort reform to tax policy to spending issues – are happening at the state level. So we’ve been more interested in focusing there.”

The focus seems unlikely to change in 2014.

With the legislative and gubernatorial election approaching – not to mention national midterm elections – that means Mainers should brace for what could be another record year of spending.

And, contrary to the Democratic narrative of the 2010 elections, it won’t be just Republicans and corporations benefiting from the recent loosening of campaign finance laws and the increased political activity of nonprofit groups. Progressive groups may have gotten their clocks cleaned in 2010, the first election after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which removed campaign spending caps on corporations and unions previously imposed by 24 states. However, backed by unions and wealthy liberal donors, Democrats have quickly recovered, and in states like Maine, have won the spending advantage.

Mainers witnessed this in 2012, when national labor unions and aligned interests spent big dollars on legislative contests. Such groups spent big during a special election for a state Senate seat held in August, accounting for more than 60 percent of the $156,000 spent to lift state Sen. Eloise Vitelli to victory.

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