Gubernatorial candidates have an identity crisis

Posted Sept. 24, 2010, at 10:58 p.m.

A ‘Blessing’ in disguise?

In the online world, anyone with a computer and an opinion can be an instant political commentator.

But when do websites cross the line between unrestricted free speech and organized political advocacy?

On Sept. 30, the Maine Ethics Commission is scheduled to consider a case involving a website calling itself “The Secret File on Eliot Cutler,” in reference to the independent candidate for governor currently sitting in third in recent polls.

The site, www.cutlerfiles.com, attacks Cutler on everything from his years as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. to his ties to Chinese companies and a failed mortgage firm. Cutler and his campaign decry the site as a cowardly political “hit piece” containing untruths, half-truths and potentially malicious content.

The people behind the site are anonymous, referring to themselves only as “a group of researchers, writers and journalists” frustrated with what they claim is lackluster media coverage of Cutler’s background.

But this is no amateur operation, either. The site looks professional — too professional, says Cutler’s camp.

The campaign has filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission, claiming the site expressly advocates for Cutler’s defeat and should, therefore, be regulated by Maine’s campaign finance disclosure rules. Those rules would require the site’s creators to identify themselves and-or their funding source.

Ethics Commission staff found enough evidence to pique their interest in looking further into the matter. Staff corresponded with a person identifying himself as Michael Blessing, a likely pseudonym, contends the Cutler campaign.

The creators have since added a disclaimer stating the site was “not paid for or authorized by any candidate” and claim to have eliminated the “express advocacy,” although the home page still calls Cutler “a phony and a fraud.”

Commission staff still appear skeptical of the site authors’ claims that forcing them to identify themselves would violate their First Amendment rights.

“The people responsible created a highly public communication tool that was intended for wide consumption by voters,” reads a staff memo to commissioners. “It is different than a Facebook page. The cost may be small, but that doesn’t diminish the informational interest of the public in knowing who is responsible.”

The meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m.

Democrats pitch for LePage?

It’s fall during an election year, which means Mainers are going to see a lot more of two things: lawn signs and attack ads.

While politicians of all stripes are quick to decry their rivals for “going negative,” the reality is campaigns and political interest groups use attack ads because they sometimes work. And sometimes they don’t.

The latter is what Republican Paul LePage claims has happened ever since the Democratic Governors Association began airing a TV ad criticizing the GOP nominee’s conditional support for nuclear power and oil exploration off the Maine coast.

“Within 48 hours, we had more money donated to us than we’ve had since we started in September,” LePage told Howie Carr, a Boston talk radio host, last week.

That appears to be a stretch.

But the latest campaign finance reports do show that LePage — the current front-runner in all of the polls — raised significantly more money in the week after the DGA ad began airing than in all but one other week since the June 8 primary.

LePage received more than $104,000 in donations between Sept. 8 — the day the ad began airing — and Sept. 14, the last day included in reports filed this week with the Maine Ethics Commission.

During the two weeks prior to Sept. 8, LePage took in just $30,600 and $51,000, respectively. In fact, the only week LePage raked in more cash from supporters was July 7-13, coinciding with at least one high-profile fundraiser and an aggressive online appeal for donations.

Of course, there is likely a combination of factors at play here.

Sept. 8 was also the day that a poll was released showing LePage with a 14-point lead over his nearest rival, Democrat Libby Mitchell. And the LePage campaign made an another appeal for donations by Sept. 14.

Additionally, Sept. 13 was the day LePage had a high-profile dust-up with reporters over questions about his wife’s taxes and residency status in Maine. The encounter seems to have boosted support among voters who distrust the media.

The Republican Governors Association also began airing their own pro-LePage ad — focusing on his rise from poverty to business success — on exactly the same date as the Democrats’ ad.

During a recent interview, LePage was asked when his campaign would start running their own television ads considering that three of his rivals — Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler and Shawn Moody — are already on the airwaves.

LePage responded: “We don’t have to. The Democrats are running ads for me.”

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