Party politics takes on harsher tone in Maine

Posted Oct. 15, 2010, at 9:19 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Forget fall. It’s officially political mud season in Maine.

And with Election Day approaching rapidly and campaign cash flowing fast, Mainers should brace for what several observers suggest could be a nastier-than-usual final 2½ weeks for the big-ticket races on the November ballot.

Today’s poll

Will the nasty tone of this year’s campaigns affect your vote?

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Already, Maine voters have been buffeted for weeks with advertisements from both major political parties targeting the opposition candidates. While such negative or “attack ads” are certainly nothing new, their relatively early appearance in the campaign — at least by Maine standards — and aggressive tone are a departure from the norm.

“It’s a bit nastier than most, I think, and certainly than most in Maine,” said Sandy Maisel, a Colby College professor of government for several decades. “I think that is because of the distance between the candidates.”

Maisel’s reference to “distance” could apply to either the relatively narrow gap between candidates’ standings in the polls — especially in the gubernatorial race — or to the large philosophical divide between candidates in many of the high-profile battles.

Recent polls have suggested that the two front-runners in the race for governor, Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell, are separated by anywhere from 1 to 6 percentage points.

When races are tighter, candidates are often more likely to “go negative” or run attack ads, Maisel said. While a preponderance of negative ads may suppress turnout among casual voters, Maisel said, they often boost turnout among more impassioned voters — and LePage and Mitchell both have supporters who intensely dislike or distrust the other candidate.

“Negative ads do work,” Maisel said.

The most recent dust-up over attack ads involves Maine’s 1st Congressional District and the increasingly heated race between incumbent Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican Dean Scontras.

For several days, the Maine Republican Party has aired television ads stating that “Pingree’s boyfriend got $200 million from the Wall Street bailout [and] now she flies on her own private jet,” among other charges.

Pingree’s campaign has called the ad a lie, saying the financial hedge fund run by her fiancé, Donald Sussman, never received bailout money and that the jet is owned by Sussman, not the congresswoman.

One Portland television station, WCSH, has already pulled the ad, citing the inaccurate statement that Pingree owns a private jet. Attorneys representing Sussman’s firm, Paloma Partners, also have threatened legal action against stations over the ad’s statements that the firm received bailout money.

On Thursday night, the Maine Republican Party fired back in a press release defending the ad’s accuracy and accusing Pingree of “using her billionaire boyfriend’s legal muscle to bully WCSH into submission.”

Of course, television is only one medium for mudslinging these days, thanks to the Internet.

The Maine Democratic Party currently has an online video labeled “Statesman or Bully,” contrasting clips of Maine Sens. Edmund Muskie, Margaret Chase Smith and George Mitchell with clips of LePage swearing and talking about bull semen. The Democratic Party also has repeatedly called LePage a tax cheat.

Arden Manning, the party’s 2010 campaign manager, said the party is merely using LePage’s own words.

“You can’t force Paul LePage to say some of the things he has chosen to say,” Manning said. “So yes, we have chosen to highlight those things to show the differences” between LePage and Mitchell.

Earlier this week, the Maine Republican Party released a picture of Mitchell laughing while holding a frame affixed with a sticker calling former President George W. Bush an “international terrorist.”

And on Friday, the Maine GOP issued a press release linking Mitchell’s time in public service to a newly released Forbes report ranking Maine 50th on a list of the best states for business and careers.

“Mainers see now what almost four decades of out-of-control spending and regulation will do to a state,” GOP chairman Charlie Webster said in the release. “Mitchell and her Democrat friends have literally destroyed our economy.”

While both major parties have spent much of the campaign attacking the rival party’s candidate, the independents in the governor’s race have cited the partisanship as a reason not to vote Democrat or Republican.

“Well, there they go again. The bickering is not going to get us anyplace,” independent candidate Eliot Cutler said during a recent debate after LePage and Mitchell sparred over transportation funding.

Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, agreed that this election cycle has a darker tone than most in the Pine Tree State.

“Maine generally tends to be somewhat different in this respect from other states,” Brewer said. “What is considered as negative, nasty or aggressive campaigning in Maine in other states would be considered pretty par-for-the-course or even tame.

“That being said, it is a little nastier and maybe a lot nastier this year [in Maine] not only in the gubernatorial race but also in the 1st District congressional campaign as well,” Brewer said.

As for why that is, Brewer said it could be a reflection of the growing partisanship nationally, the rise of the anger-filled tea party movement or the closeness of the campaigns in Maine.

“Are we going to see more negative campaigns in Maine in the future? I would be hesitant to say that just from this election,” Brewer said.

Amy Fried, a colleague of Brewer’s within UMaine’s political science department, said that every race has a different dynamic and that she would expect the gubernatorial race to “get sharper” over the coming weeks.

As for public reaction to the tone of the campaign, Fried suggested that is harder to gauge.

“Mainers don’t like negative campaigning,” Fried said. But when both sides are responsible, she added, “who is the negative campaigner?”

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