August 6, 2012

Election 2012: Political funds race falls short of 2008

The drop in contributions reflects less interest in congressional races, among other factors.

By Steve Mistler
Staff Writer

The Maine Democratic Party's fundraising efforts are well off the pace it set in 2008, the last presidential election year.

The Maine Republican Party, meanwhile, is only slightly behind its 2008 fundraising, but trailing its Democratic rivals.

The status of the money battle between the state party committees shows who has the advantage to help its congressional and legislative candidates. With three months until the Nov. 6 election, both party committees are working hard to attract in-state and out-of-state donors to bolster those efforts.

The most recent party committee filings with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices show the Maine Democratic State Committee leading the Maine Republican Party in fundraising, $253,134 to $194,000 during the period of May 30 to July 17.

Overall, Democrats have brought in a total of $453,595 this year, compared to $370,963 for the GOP. The advantage would seem to bode well for Democrats, who hope to take control of the Legislature and recover from a trouncing in 2010.

But the Republicans appear to have the edge in the number of small donors -- a metric often equated to grassroots support and party enthusiasm.

While Democrats have their share of small donors, the party also has billionaire financier S. Donald Sussman, who has often played a significant financial role backing Democratic causes and candidates.

This year is no different. According to state reports with the ethics commission, Sussman has given $200,000 to the Democratic Party Committee.

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

Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster recently said Sussman's resources are a constant threat, arguing that his involvement in a legislative race can overwhelm GOP candidates in some instances.

Webster also emphasized the GOP's base of small donors as evidence that the party is more energized than the Democrats.

State reports show that the GOP state committee has a few big donors, too. Colorado billionaire and media mogul John Malone gave $80,000 to the Republicans during the last reporting period, while Texas businessman Ed Bosarge, CEO of Capital Technologies, gave $70,000.

The state finance reports, however, reveal only one segment of the parties' election spending capacity.

The party committees also file campaign disclosure reports with the Federal Elections Commission. The separate filing is designed to demarcate money that could go toward congressional races. However, federal donations can also be directed toward legislative races.

Parties favor the federal donations for two primary reasons: First, the donations are not earmarked for a particular candidate, which means the party can divert funding as the dynamics of a particular race change. Second, the contribution limits are typically higher than at the state level.

The FEC filings show the Maine Democratic Party has collected $577,979, compared to $276,991 reported by the Maine GOP. The Democratic total is $328,167 less than the party drew through the same period in 2008. The federal reports show the GOP pulling in $83,410 less than it did during the 2008 period.

There are several reasons for the lagging Democratic fundraising efforts. Michael Franz, an associate professor of government and political science at Bowdoin College, said the gap may reflect the status of the congressional races.

In 2008 Democrats believed they had a chance to defeat U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

"At that time the Democrats were kind of on the march in terms of the Senate race," Franz said. "They were having a good year that year and coming close to 60 seats," the threshold to prevent filibusters on legislation.

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