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

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Another Republican senator, Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, holds a razor-thin lead in District 17 over Colleen J. Quint of Minot in a race that will be subject to a recount. His third-party supporters were outspent by almost 3-to-1, $184,016 to $62,318. Both campaigns were privately financed.

In the House, the most high-profile defeat was that of former Speaker John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who lost District 1 to Republican challenger Allen Michael Nadeau 54 percent to 46 percent. Outside groups spent $14,768 to help Nadeau. Martin had no third-party backers. Both ran as clean elections candidates.

"John was a Clean Elections candidate and he didn't have the money to respond," said Jodi Quintero, spokesperson for the House Democrats, who points out that the state ethics commission is launching an investigation into whether the Nadeau campaign broke campaign finance laws prohibiting coordination between third-party groups and political campaigns. (Nadeau's campaign treasurer was also treasurer of one of the political action committees that supported his candidacy.)

DECISIVE FACTOR OR PARTISAN STATIC?

Overall, Quintero said she didn't think third-party expenditures -- including those by the state parties -- had a decisive effect on the balance of the lower chamber of the Legislature. By her account, Republican groups spent money in roughly 90 of the 151 races, Democrats in about 50.

"The Republicans outspent us in a number of races, and we beat them in races where they spent money and we didn't," she said. "The money had an influence, but I don't think you could say it was the definitive factor across the board."

Snowe-Mello, the Republican senator from Poland who was unseated in District 15, said she's certain the outside money was a critical factor in her defeat. "It absolutely did," she said, decrying what she felt were unfair depictions of her positions and intentions. "I won't run again ever. I will not put myself through this again. It's not right to destroy people's character when somebody is a really good person."

Her rival, Cleveland, agrees that many of the ads were unfair, as were ones taken out opposing his candidacy, but he doesn't think they were effective. "My impression is that it created a total blur," he said. "There were so many mailers coming into people's mailboxes every day and they were so frequently negative in tone and so obviously from some partisan group that people disregarded them and threw them into the trash instead."

One incumbent Clean Election candidate who survived a high-profile, third-party spending drive agrees. Dick Woodbury, an independent senator from Yarmouth, was targeted by Republican groups and donors who spent $95,403 on the District 11 Senate race. Allies responded with $21,276.

Despite the 3-to-1 gap, Woodbury ultimately prevailed over privately financed challenger Chris Tyll, 53 percent to 47 percent.

"Some of that independent spending was targeting me and some of it was targeting him, but I think on both sides people discounted that stuff pretty effectively," Woodbury said. "If anything, the negativity hurt the side it was supposed to help more than anything."

"But Chris and I ran really respectful and very positive campaigns, and we had nothing to do with the rest of it," he said. "It was a model race if you take out all that independent spending stuff."

Still, Woodbury is troubled by the rise of outside money in State House races. "The magnitude of the spending has gotten to such an extreme level that it has distorted the messages of the candidates themselves and the focus on real policy problems," he said. "It's taken the pure and admirable aspects of democracy and debased it."

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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