Fifteen months before Election Day, a new dark money group is buying at least $722,000 worth of television time across Maine to make it tougher for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to win reelection to a fifth term as Maine’s senior senator.

Maine Momentum, a nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose its donors, has purchased more than 4,000 advertising slots on a number of stations to air commercials aimed at educating or questioning the Republican senator through early January.

Advertising Analytics tallied up $722,000 in planned advertising buys by the group. It appears, though, that there may be more spots lined up that weren’t counted.

While it cannot by law endorse candidates for elected office, Maine Momentum is allowed to run informational advertising that is one-sided and clearly helpful to Democrats who hope to send Collins packing in what it shaping up to be one of the costliest and most divisive Senate races in the country.

Collins’ campaign has denounced the commercials as deceptive and paid for by wealthy people from outside Maine.

There are four Democrats vying for the right to take her on: state House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, lobbyist Betsy Sweet of Hallowell, Saco lawyer Bre Kidman and retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Jonathan Treacy of Oxford.

Gideon is well ahead in fundraising and has strong backing from groups connected to the Democratic Party establishment in Washington.

Sen. Susan Collins

Though all four of the candidates are required to cite all of their significant donors in regular filings with the Federal Election Commission, groups such as Maine Momentum operate under different rules that make it possible for them to raise money without disclosing sources as long as they’re not coordinating their activities with candidates.

In one of its filings with a television station in Portland, Maine Momentum said it planned to “tell Collins to stop risking Social Security and Medicare.”

It explained in more detail elsewhere that “Collins voted to put Medicare and Social Security in jeopardy. Gives tax breaks to big corporations and then took donations from them.”

Collins’ campaign vehemently objects to the charges.

It said that Maine Momentum “appears to exist solely to attack Senator Susan Collins” and its advertising is both negative and false.

Collins hasn’t taken any money from corporations since doing so would be illegal. She has, however, collected plenty of campaign cash from political action committees with ties to companies and industries, reported on her FEC filings.

The charge that Collins voted to put Social Security and Medicare in danger is deceptive, the senator’s campaign charges.

The reality, it said, is that Collins insisted on a deal as part of her support for the December 2017 tax package to ensure that Medicare would not be jeopardized by passage of the $1.5 trillion measure.

A screenshot of Maine Momentum’s website.

Maine Momentum was apparently formed in late winter. Its website was created on March 8.

While its funders remain a mystery, its two top officials are Democrats listed on the advertising paperwork as Willy Ritch, a former spokesperson for 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and Chris Glynn, a former spokesperson for the Maine Democratic Party who recently worked for Gideon.

 

A snippet from one of the forms filed with a Maine television station listing Maine Momentum’s leadership.

Maine Public found that another dark money group, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, may be one source of the group’s funding. It has provided cash to grassroots groups across the country in  recent elections, including $800,000 to Mainers for Health Care, a group that backed the Medicaid expansion question on the 2017 ballot.

It found that Ritch had emceed an event in Portland cosponsored by Tax March, identified in tax filings as “a trade name for the Sixteen Thirty Fund, as is Demand Justice, a group that has targeted Collins with digital ads hammering her vote for U.S. Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh last year.”

Ritch and Glynn are also running the 16 Counties Coalition, a project of Maine Momentum that calls itself “a grassroots advocacy effort” with representatives from each of Maine’s counties.

Among its planned advertising, Maine Momentum has reserved 354 time slots through the end of the year on Portland television station WGME for about $96,000. They’ll be shown mostly during news segments, but also occasionally on such shows as “The Young and Restless” and “Judge Judy.”

Maine Momentum has also slotted about $7,000 worth of commercials on Portland’s WPXT.

On Portland’s WMTW, the group has more than 2,900 advertising slots lined up through the end of the year, mostly set to air during reruns of such shows as “Love Boat” and “Green Acres.”

It’s shelling out about $18,000 for the airtime.

Portland’s WCSH is set to air 137 spots for $78,000 by early January, mostly during the local news.

On Bangor’s WVII, Maine Momentum plans to air 940 spots by year’s end during breaks in “Wheel of Fortune,” “Family Feud” and other shows at a total cost of about $58,000

The advertising slots were arranged by Ethica Media, a firm that typically works with left-wing causes and Democratic candidates.

The anti-Collins advertising effort is also going to have radio and digital advertising.

Collins’ campaign said that Maine Momentum is funneling money “from unknown, out-of-state sources into Maine” and trying to “deceive voters with a reckless disregard for the truth.”

“It’s not surprising that allies of Sara Gideon, who herself admitted to federal campaign finance violations involving straw donations and corporate money last week, would play these kinds of dark money games,” the Republican incumbent’s campaign said.

While Collins has formally declared she is a candidate for reelection — and set up the campaign apparatus she will need — she has said she plans to mull over the decision soon and announce this fall whether she’s going to run again.

A screenshot from one of the ads placed by Maine Momentum to criticize U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who is up for reelection next year.