October 29, 2012

Our View: Money is transforming Maine legislative politics

As money floods the zone, a few wealthy donors will control which candidates are heard.

We may not end up with the best Legislature in Maine history, but after this election, we'll certainly have the most expensive one.

According to the campaign reports filed last week, $1.89 million has already been spent in legislative races two weeks before the election, more than was spent in the entire 2010 race, which had been the most expensive.

We are seeing spending like never before. State Senate candidates are running ads on broadcast television, knowing that only a tiny fraction of viewers will be able to vote in the race.

Homes are getting buried in direct mail literature, designed and assembled by national consulting firms. And we can only expect that this will accelerate in the last week of the campaign when the money is flowing and it is too late for an opponent to respond.

And who is spending all this money? Most of it comes from third-party groups, not the campaigns themselves. These groups can spend on behalf of candidates, giving them all the exposure they could want, but providing them with plausible deniability if the message goes a little over the top. These political action committees are funded by out-of-state groups, which still consider Maine to be a cheap date when it comes to influencing the outcome of an election.

This is a bipartisan affair. There is a flood of money supporting Democrats and Republicans, who are fighting for control of the Legislature. Both parties are breaking spending barriers and trying techniques to capture votes that were out of reach in the past.

These floodgates were opened by a line of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that found that attempts to level the playing field between candidates interfere with free speech.

Well, now we have a lot of speech, but not much of it is free.

A study by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections found that as the expenditures climb, the number of donors shrinks.

The government is the only institution in our society that can protect individuals from corporate interests, but we're seeing the emergence of a system where the corporations get to pick who serves in the government.

It will take a grass-roots movement to stop this trend. The people of Maine want a representative Legislature, not an expensive one.


Correction: This editorial was revised at 11:05 a.m., Oct. 28, 2012, to state that $1.89 million has been spent by outside groups in legislative races so far this year.

 

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