The small state of Maine has just been host to one of the most expensive U.S. Senate races in history.

The campaigns of Democrat Sara Gideon and Republican Sen. Susan Collins have raised and will likely spend more than $100 million combined, and outside groups are spending that much again in mostly negative ads against the two front-runners.

And what have they gotten for all that money? If we look at the polls, not that much.

What we have seen is a remarkably stable race, with poll after poll showing a tight contest with Gideon slightly ahead, usually within the margin of error. But there are other consequences.

We have also seen a race where independent candidate Lisa Savage has not been able to gain ground despite her consistently strong performances in televised debates. This is an election that will use ranked-choice voting, which is supposed to help minor-party candidates like Savage present ideas and compete without being tagged as a spoiler. But the $186,502 she has been able to raise is not enough to get into the game.

And spending millions on ads designed to make people scared or angry will make people scared and angry, and that won’t go away after the election is over. Research suggests that negative ads “work” at shaping opinion, but they also increase division and polarization.


We have been witness to one of the most negative campaigns in the country, according to a study by the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracked ad spending by candidates in September. Almost half of the ads run by Gideon’s campaign and 35 percent of Collins’ were characterized as “pure attacks.” The website Open Secrets, which tracks spending by outside groups, reports that nearly $90 million of the $108 million spent in Maine over the last few months has paid for attacks against the rival candidate.

It will be a while before we know who won the Senate race, but we may already know who lost.

Are we more knowledgable thanks to the $200 million that has been spent informing us? Have we heard two competing visions for the future of our state and our nation, or have we just been driven more deeply into rival camps?

In the 10 years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited corporate money to be spent on elections, every year has been the record year for campaign spending. This year, Maine, Iowa and North Carolina are the battlegrounds, but by 2022 it will be some other states that will face the deluge because they are believed to hold the key to control of the Senate.

Spending of this kind warps our politics. Free speech only for those who can afford it stifles other voices. Political war without end makes it impossible to govern.

In July, we encouraged readers to tune out the campaign ads, and pay more attention to news coverage and the debates when they were making up their minds. But the amount of spending in this race on television, radio, print, online and direct mail advertising was too much to ignore.

This has got to stop. We need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, stronger laws requiring disclosure of donors and public financing programs that give regular people a chance to compete.

Mainers have just had a front-row seat into what too much money in politics looks like. Whoever represents us in Washington needs to be told that we don’t like what we just saw.

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