Spending by outside groups trying to influence voters ahead of the November election for the Blaine House has begun in earnest, and much more is expected in the next seven weeks.

Heading into Labor Day, incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Mills had a 2-1 fundraising advantage over former two-term Gov. Paul LePage through July, raising about $3.8 million to LePage’s $1.8 million. But that does not account for independent expenditures, or spending by groups that the candidates cannot coordinate with or control.

Candidates for Maine governor, Sam Hunkler, Paul LePage and Janet Mills

Through Sept. 13, outside groups, including state political committees and out-of-state interest groups, have spent more than $3.6 million, either supporting or opposing Mills or LePage.

Nearly 40 percent of that figure, or nearly $1.4 million, has been spent in the last two weeks alone, according to campaign finance records from the Maine Ethics Commission.

That money has purchased a slew of television ads that already are dominating the airwaves. And the ads are overwhelmingly negative messages, or attack ads, aimed at either Mills or LePage.

Public inspection files of southern Maine’s three network TV stations – WCSH, WMTW and WGME – show scores of other ad bookings between now and Nov. 8, suggesting that the spending so far is just the tip of the iceberg, for both candidates and outside groups.

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Analysts are projecting a record-breaking amount of spending during the midterms nationwide, with about 66 percent of the spending occurring from August through November.

AdImpact, an Alexandra, Virginia-based group that tracks and projects political spending, estimates that $127 million could be spent on Maine’s midterm elections, including $27 million on the three-way race for governor that also includes political newcomer Sam Hunkler, a Beals physician who is running as an independent and has not been raising money.

If that spending prediction holds up, it would dwarf spending in the 2018 gubernatorial election, but fall below the record spending in the 2020 U.S. Senate race.

About $18 million was spent in the 2018 gubernatorial elections between Mills, Republican Shawn Moody and independents Terry Hayes and Alan Caron. The candidates spent a combined total of $7 million, while outside groups spent $11.1 million.

In 2020, however, outside groups spent over $218 million in the race that saw Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins cruise to victory over her Democratic challenger, Sarah Gideon. Collins and Gideon, meanwhile, spent a combined $104 million on the campaign, and Gideon finished with more than $11 million in her campaign coffers.

MOST SPENDING ON ATTACK ADS

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So far, most of the independent spending in the 2022 gubernatorial race is being done by Maine groups but funded by the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association, with two-thirds of all the spending on TV attack ads.

The Maine Republican Party has spent the most and its top donor is the national RGA. Of the $1.9 million spent to date, the party has spent $968,500 in support of LePage. The group has also spent $951,787 opposing Mills, including $414,000 in TV and $93,903 in radio advertisements.

Maine Republicans are currently running an anti-Mills ad on Maine’s three major TV networks called “radical lessons.” It criticizes a video that used to be on the Department of Education’s website and offered guidance about talking to kindergarteners about equality and LGBTQ issues. The ad was pulled by the DOE amid criticism from Republicans.

However, Better Maine, a political action group founded by the DGA, is not far behind and has spent nearly all of its money on ads attacking LePage. All but $35,000 of the more than $1.6 million in spending is in opposition to LePage, including nearly $1.4 million in television ads.

Better Maine is running TV ads about LePage’s legacy, saying it was divisive and offensive. The ad features LePage’s recent confrontation with a Democratic staffer in Madawaska, saying “I’m going to deck you.” It also highlights his opposition to renewable energy, his position on public school funding and his income tax cuts that primarily benefited wealthier Mainers.

LePage is getting a boost from Blue Print for Maine’s Future, a PAC led by Maine Rep. Dustin White, R-Mars Hill, that has spent $30,000 on digital ads supporting the former governor.

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Mills, meanwhile, is benefitting from other outside spending including $6,600 in support of her candidacy from the labor-union Rebuild Maine PAC, nearly $11,000 in field organizing from the Maine People’s Alliance’s Campaign Vote PAC and $4,440 in radio ads from the Maine Democratic State Committee.

TEXT CAMPAIGN TARGETS BOOK

Meanwhile, the American Principle Project, a national conservative group, has launched its first ad buy of the election cycle, spending $100,000 on a text messaging campaign in opposition to Mills.

APP filed an application with the Maine Ethics Commission on Sept. 9 to form the Maine Families First PAC. The application is pending.

In July, APP conducted polling to see if anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant messaging could influence the gubernatorial race. APP used a fake name – “Maine Today & Public Insight” – that led some people to believe it was being conducted by MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

As of July, the group had raised about $9 million for midterm races across the country.

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Maine Public, which first reported APP’s application to form a PAC in Maine, said the text message redirects recipients to an ad on YouTube that highlights what it considers to be explicit scenes from the book “Gender Queer,” an award-winning memoir that is being targeted by conservative activists across the country, including in Maine.

None of the independent expenditures has targeted Hunkler, who has never run for public office.

The Maine Ethics Commission regularly updates its database of all independent expenditures over $250 during the election season, but that database only lists general information about the group and the purpose and cost of the ads. Within 60 days of an election, independent expenditures must be reported within two days. Within 13 days of an election, expenditures must be reported within one day.

The next round of comprehensive campaign finance reporting for the candidates and political action committees, including funding sources, is Sept. 27, which is 42 days before the general election.

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