In the race to be Maine’s next governor, the first campaign finance reports of 2018 show clear front-runners, with candidates who are sitting on piles of cash while others already face mounting debt.

But who has the most money now may not ultimately matter, according to political observers and the results of past campaigns in Maine where the winner isn’t always a matter of money.

Case in point: Paul LePage, who had raised only $40,000 at this juncture in the 2010 election season but went on to dominate the Republican primary and claim the first of his two terms in the Blaine House.

“Money doesn’t equal votes by any means, but money makes it easier to get votes,”said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.

Adding another layer of uncertainty is the prospect that ranked-choice voting will be imposed on the June 12 primary by a people’s veto campaign now underway, with petitioners closing in on the signatures they need.

At the top of the fundraising pack on the Democratic side is candidate Adam Cote, a Sanford attorney and 20-year veteran of the Maine National Guard. With more than a half-million dollars raised and a campaign war chest with just over $350,000 in it at the end of 2017, Cote is also the cash front-runner for all the candidates in the race from any party.

Not far behind is Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat from Farmington, who outpaced Cote in donations in the last six months of 2017 but who reported a smaller war-chest balance of $230,615. Mills also has $6,214 in debts.

Gorham businessman Shawn Moody, a former independent who joined the Republican Party in 2017, is the campaign cash front-runner on the Republican side, collecting just over $286,005. He has $260,000 cash on hand and $1,466 in debt. He’s followed by former Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who has raised $197,838 and had $94,670 cash on hand at the end of last year.

The balance sheet doesn’t look nearly as good for Democratic candidate Diane Russell, a former state representative from Portland. She raised $50,000, spent all but $5,000 of it and still racked up $73,000 in debt at the end of 2017.

A SIGN OF ORGANIZATIONAL STRENGTH

University of Maine at Farmington political science professor James Melcher said potential donors are probably paying close attention to the primary races in January, even though the average voter isn’t.

“It’s a signal to donors,” Melcher said. “People who are thinking, ‘Well, gee, I like these few candidates. I want to back a winner. Who looks likely to pull through?'”

Melcher notes both Mills and Cote have pointed to their numbers to show they are being taken seriously and also to suggest that financial support is a sign voters overall want a different kind of governor in 2018.

“It is important as a sign of organization strength, that they are making connections, that people are voting with their dollars,” Melcher said. “It’s a sign of health of the campaign and a signal to donors as to who they might want to give money to, but it doesn’t necessarily predict who is going to do well.”

At this point in the 2010 election cycle – before the June primaries – then-candidate Paul LePage, who at the time was the mayor of Waterville and relatively unknown in Maine political circles, had raised just $40,000. LePage’s campaign had spent about $4,000 of that and had cash on hand of about $36,000.

Yet he would go on to handily win the party’s seven-way primary just five months later with 37 percent of the vote. Les Otten, the Maine ski magnate, finished a distant second with 17 percent of the vote – after pumping more than a half-million dollars of his own money into his campaign.

Brent Littlefield, a political adviser to LePage who is also working for Moody’s campaign, warned against drawing too many parallels among different political campaigns.

“Every race is different,” Littlefield said in an email Friday. “No two races are alike. What happened in 2010 can’t be compared to today. Gov. LePage’s 2014 race can’t be compared to his 2010 race – they were different.”

RAISING MONEY ISN’T THE ONLY CHALLENGE

Although an early jump in the campaign finance race doesn’t always lead to a primary victory, a strong report with the right names on the donor list can be “gold” for a campaign, said Brewer, the UMaine professor.

Candidates who have done well can take those reports to other potential donors and persuade them to get on board, or they can try to affix a “loser” label to an opponent’s lackluster financial report to discourage other donors.

“These things matter,” Brewer said. “They are inside baseball, for sure, but they matter.”

Raising money isn’t the only challenge for the 11 Democrats and five Republicans now running primary campaigns. If a petition drive underway now in Maine is successful, voters would face a ranked-choice ballot. That could affect how candidates spend money and behave on the campaign trail between now and June 12.

Under a ranked-choice system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote after the first tabulation, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated. Voters who rank the eliminated candidate at the top of their list then have their ballots added to the totals of their second-ranked candidates, and the ballots are counted again. The process continues until one candidate has a clear majority.

The first-in-the-nation system for filling state and congressional offices was approved by voters in 2016. But the new law was suspended by the Legislature and will be repealed in 2021 if the Maine Constitution is not amended by then to address legal concerns raised in an opinion from the state’s highest court.

To keep the law in place, supporters of ranked-choice voting have launched a petition drive for a people’s veto of the Legislature’s repeal of the law. If organizers are able to collect the required 61,123 signatures from registered Maine voters by Feb. 2, the ranked-choice system will be reinstated for the primary election.

THE EFFECTS OF RANKED-CHOICE VOTING

Crystal Canney, a spokeswoman for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, said Friday the organization has collected more than 60,000 voter signatures and will continue its petition drive through the end of January.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Canney wrote in an email to the Maine Sunday Telegram. If the petitioners gather the requisite signatures, the primary ballot would also feature a question asking voters if they want to keep the ranked-choice system for the general election as well, overturning the Legislature’s efforts to kill the law.

How ranked-choice voting will affect primary campaigns is “a tricky question,” in Melcher’s view, although supporters of the system like to claim it tempers negative attacks.

“Because you don’t want to be that woman or that man that other people hate for attacking you,” Melcher said. “They like to claim it will lead to more positive campaigning. It’s too early to tell because at this point in the campaign (candidates) are more interested in introducing (themselves). They want to tell people who they are.”

In a crowded primary field with ranked-choice voting, “It could be really risky, if you are one of the leading candidates, to go after one of the other ones,” he said. But those at the back of the pack in a crowded field may have nothing to lose.

“This is too early for those kind of attacks anyway,” Melcher said. “We are really in unusual territory here; we’ve never seen a race like this. It’s too early to tell on that.”

To add yet another variable, Melcher pointed to the large number of candidates who are running under the Maine Clean Election Act, seeking to qualify for public financing.

He said clean-election candidates can target well-heeled, traditionally financed campaigns to question an opponent’s integrity or point out potential conflicts of interest.

“They can use this,” Melcher said. “Because they can say, ‘Wow, look at all this money that is already flowing into the campaigns so far away from the primary. Here’s a sign that big money is a problem in the process.’ ”

Melcher said the campaigns that are doing well will also want to crow to the media about it.

“And I don’t think that’s all fluff because there is an extent to which it shows some organizational ability and confidence from donors and the political elites that, ‘Hey this is somebody we don’t think is a total waste of time.’ ”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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