LEWISTON — There’s been a lot of buzz in state political circles about independent expenditures in Maine’s U.S. Senate campaign lately.
And whether that spending works or backfires in Maine is a question some political observers are asking.
In June, former Maine governor and independent candidate Angus King challenged the other candidates in the race to reject outside spending on their campaigns’ behalf.
Money spent by an independent political action committee on behalf of a campaign is not subject to the same federal disclosure laws that campaign spending is, including not having to say who funds them.
“This money is distorting our politics and it is largely anonymous. Sen. John McCain referred to the way it all works as, ‘identity laundering’ — where you can’t really tell who is making these enormous contributions to people’s campaigns,” King said. “I think it is also this flow of money that has contributed to the public cynicism and distrust of government.”
King suggested the Senate campaigns in Maine agree to donate to charity an amount equal to the amount spent by any group independent of the campaigns.
“I think the people of Maine deserve to know where the money is coming from that is attempting to influence their vote in this election,” King said in June.
None of the campaigns took King up on his offer and since then more than $560,000 has been spent by groups, mostly outside of Maine, in support or opposition to the candidates here, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission.
King too has benefited from about $30,000 in outside spending, a point his opponents are quick to point out.
The issue of outside spending reared its head again last week when a Washington, D.C.-based, Republican backed Super PAC purchased $68,750 in television advertising in support of the Democratic candidate in the race, state Sen. Cynthia Dill of Cape Elizabeth.
King immediately criticized the ad as cynical.
“This is another example of out-of-state interests trying to tell Mainers how to vote,” King said in a written statement. “When is the last time the Republicans spent money promoting a Democrat? Why can’t they promote their own candidate? What a world we live in.”
Dill’s campaign shot back in a series of statements and a commentary, penned by Dill that was published in the Portland Press Herald earlier this week.
“It certainly did not take long for Angus King to jump on the Republican Super PAC that is airing television ads in Maine and use it as another way to ask voters for money,” Dill said.
“His campaign labels the advertising as ‘cynical.’ Given this immediate pounce to get Maine voters’ donations, and add more money to his coffers, I wonder who is really the cynical one here,” she said.
Dill’s campaign also said it was definitely not in the loop on the ad and had nothing to do with it. Likewise Summers’ campaign distanced itself from the ad.
“Our only comment on that is people are allowed to run whatever ads they want,” Summers’ campaign manager, Lance Dutson, told the Bangor Daily News. “We’re focused on Charlie’s race and his message to get Washington’s fiscal house in order.”
Here’s the breakdown of where the outside cash has come from.
* The largest expenditure to date was by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The organization spent $400,000 on television ads in opposition to Angus King.
Shortly after their ads began airing, the U.S. chamber’s national political director went on tour in Maine with Republican candidate and Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers, touting the national chamber’s endorsement of Summers.
* The next largest outside expenditure, $137,500, has been by Maine Freedom, a political action committee based in Washington. The group spent half of it on advertising in support of Dill and the rest for ads opposing King.
* In May a California-based super PAC, icPurple Inc., spent $23,667 on ads in support of King. That ad features two groups of children fighting over what color to paint their tree house. One insists on red the other blue. They settle on mixing the two colors together to get purple. “Vote Angus King for Senate,” the ad states. “He’s not a Democrat, he’s not a Republican, he’s an American.”
That PAC has also supported a Republican and an independent in U.S. House races in California.
Jim Melcher, a political science professor with the University of Maine at Farmington, said this type of advertising produced unreliable results in Maine, where voters are particularly resistant to people from away telling them how to vote or who to like.
“Mainers have a sense of fairness about some of these things,” Melcher said. “I don’t know how much most Mainers are really up on the intricacies of independent expenditure law, but if it comes to be a sense of fairness issue, what that may well do is lead to more resentment of it in general.”
That may not translate to resentment of any specific candidate but of the practice over all. “If people come to the conclusion that everybody is doing it they may not direct that irritation at a specific candidate it may just be, ‘it’s that damn mess in Washington, it’s those out-of-state people.’”