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.

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."

The biggest outside expenditures came from the Maine Republican Party (more than $920,000), the Maine Democratic Party (almost $840,000) and the Committee to Rebuild Maine's Middle Class (about $760,000), largely financed by national labor unions and traditional Maine Democratic donors, including S. Donald Sussman.

Sussman is the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

The Maine Senate Republican Majority (financed by a national Republican Party entity whose largest donors include Anthem, tobacco companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) spent $304,000; Citizens Who Support Maine's Public Schools -- financed by the National Education Association, a teacher's union -- spent over $170,000, while Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform spent almost $65,000.

"I think it's clear that outside money distorts our politics, muddying the messages between candidates and voters," said Andrew Bossie of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. "We encourage voters to take full advantage of our disclosure laws and look for that message that tells you who is behind the ad and see if you think it's really true."

Staff Writer Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: cwoodard@pressherald.com

 

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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