November 11, 2012

Outside campaign funds flooded state in negativity

This year's State House election drew an unprecedented $3.53 million from away, but did it make a difference?

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

State Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello, R-Poland, lost her seat in Tuesday's election and she's upset, really upset.

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"You think you are doing a good job and you're going door to door and people are so wonderful and it's going great and then, two weeks before the election, you get hit and suddenly everything changes," the three-term senator said. "We were bombarded by radio and TV ads and fliers: 'Did you know Snowe-Mello did this? Did you know she did that?' "

"What really upsets me is they were trying to destroy my character," she said, breaking into tears. "I'm a very caring and loving senator, and I want everyone in this state to have the best life they can, and it was very hurtful to have people look at me like I'm a monster."

Snowe-Mello was one of dozens of state legislative candidates targeted by negative advertising paid for not by their opponents, but by the state and national parties, labor unions, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other third-party groups.

This year's State House election attracted an unprecedented $3.53 million in outside spending, more than twice the figure in 2008 and 17 times that of a decade ago. In many races -- Snowe-Mello's included -- outside spending dwarfed the amounts spent by the candidates' campaigns, flooding mailboxes, newspaper pages, and even the airwaves with a blitz of negative and sometimes disingenuous advertisements.

When the dust settled, control of both houses of the Legislature had changed hands, dramatically shifting the political landscape for the remainder of Republican Gov. Paul LePage's term.

It used to be said that all politics are local, but now it appears even local offices are of interest to national political donors. Sources say this development places challenges on both Maine's Clean Election Act and its tradition of having a Legislature dominated by ordinary citizens, rather than full-time politicians, the wealthy and the well-connected, or those blessed with exceptionally thick skins.

"Maine is part of a national effort where there were 13 legislatures where there was the prospect of shifting control from one party to the other," said Colby College's Anthony Corrado, a leading national expert on money in politics. "There was a particular inducement for the parties and their partisan allies to get involved financially because of the generally low cost of elections here in Maine. An expenditure of a few thousand dollars can make a difference."

All that money makes elections more expensive, and increases the pressure to opt out of Maine's publicly financed Clean Election system, said Michael Franz, an expert on campaign advertising at Bowdoin College. "If you're a regular person, you may decide not to run, so the aggregate effect is to have those running for offices to be wealthy people, people with time on their hands, and people with access to high-income donors," he said.

"It does belie this notion that the Legislature is a true citizen's Legislature," he added.

DID IT WORK?

Some of the most targeted races resulted in losses for the incumbent senators, though there is disagreement on whether outside spending was a decisive factor.

In Senate District 32 in the Bangor area, outside groups spent a staggering $454,414, the most of any race, according to data provided by the state ethics commission. Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, was defeated by Democratic challenger Geoffrey Gratwick, also of Bangor, 56 percent to 44 percent. Groups supportive of Farnham were outspent, $247,262 to $207,152. Both candidates ran with clean elections funding.

Snowe-Mello was defeated in Senate District 15, 53 percent to 47 percent, by her Democratic challenger, former Auburn Mayor John J. Cleveland. Her outside supporters were outspent by Cleveland's by more than two-to-one: $171,188 to $69,981. She was a Clean Election candidate; Cleveland was privately financed.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Campaign finance

Do you think Maine is less likely to have “citizen-legislators” due to the influence of money in politics?

Yes

No

View Results