AUGUSTA, Maine — The Republican-aligned forces in the campaign for Maine’s open U.S. Senate seat have largely used the summer for one recurring strategy: attack Angus King, widely considered the frontrunner in the six-way contest.
With campaigns shifting into high gear for the fall home stretch, Republicans say they soon will be talking up their own candidate, Charlie Summers, but that the criticism of King won’t stop.
The attacks on King started in earnest at the end of July with a $400,000 advertising campaign from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that dubbed him the “King of Mismanagement” for his two-term tenure as governor. While the U.S. Chamber has endorsed Summers, it’s devoted the bulk of its resources in Maine to the negative ad against King.
At the beginning of August, the Summers campaign unveiled its first advertisement of the general election campaign, a web ad that calls out King for saying he’s no fan of negative campaigning even though in 1994 his gubernatorial campaign ran an ad that compared Democratic opponent Joe Brennan to a mummy.
And near the end of August, a newly formed political action committee called Maine Freedom spent $137,000 on TV ads promoting Democrat Cynthia Dill as a “bold progressive” and a “Democrat you can feel good about” and criticizing King for vetoing a minimum wage increase as governor.
While the Maine Freedom ads promote Dill, the organization has Republican ties. Treasurer Michael Adams serves as general counsel for the Republican Governors Association, assistant treasurer Erin Berry is former deputy counsel for the Republican Governors Association and former associate general counsel for the Republican State Leadership Committee, and the firm Maine Freedom uses to make the ad buy, Target Enterprises, is led by Adam Stoll, who’s worked on Republican campaigns and served as an adviser to the 2004 and 2008 Republican National Conventions.
Meanwhile, Maine’s Republican party has issued a flurry of news releases in recent weeks questioning, among other things, King’s membership on the boards of the Bank of Maine and a Bermuda investment company, W.P. Stewart & Co., as a way to make an issue of his financial management acumen.
And the Summers campaign has followed up with emails to its supporters that repeat some of the same talking points.
Lance Dutson, Summers’ campaign manager, said Thursday the positive publicity about Summers, Maine’s secretary of state, is coming “very soon.”
While much of the summer’s high-profile campaign activity has centered on negative publicity against King, Dutson said, the campaign also spent much of the summer assembling staff, focusing on fundraising and scheduling time for Summers to meet with voters.
“The candidate’s spending an enormous amount of time in one-on-one and small-group conversations,” he said. “The chamber ads and the fact that the state party is being aggressive and the fact that we’ve done some light contrast stuff, I think, has drawn some headlines. But the majority of our effort is placed in getting Charlie out in the world.”
Maine GOP spokesman David Sorensen said publicity from the state party this fall will include positive promotions of Summers, but “the vetting of Angus’ record will absolutely continue throughout the cycle.”
“We do absolutely support our candidates and want to get the positive message out about them, but we also see our role as that of a third party that can vet the opponent,” Sorensen said. “Our candidates have to stay on message about what they’re going to do, why they’re qualified.”
For its part, the King campaign will kick off the post-Labor Day campaign rush with a $10,000 online ad buy of its own. On Tuesday, the campaign will run a 14-second spot on the websites of the Bangor Daily News, the Lewiston Sun-Journal and the Portland Press Herald.
“It has been a cynical season even before we hit Labor Day with negative cartoon ads that make no sense at all, with Republicans paying for ads to support the Democratic candidate,” King spokeswoman Crystal Canney said in an email. “There is no question the partisan special interests are on warp speed.”
It’s logical for the forces promoting a candidate who’s trailing a better-known rival to start out on the attack, said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer.
“One of the things you have to do before you get your own candidate to go up in the polls is to knock that other person down a little bit,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, the classic way to do that is to go on the attack and to go negative.”
The plans for continued involvement from outside parties like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Maine Freedom and other groups are less clear than for the Summers campaign and the Maine Republican Party.
Adams, the Maine Freedom treasurer, said in an email that group “does not comment about its future plans or strategy.” A U.S. Chamber spokeswoman couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.
“The attack stuff has to work before you can shift gears,” said Brewer. “If you’re successful at that, taking down the other guy, then is when you can come in as a campaign or a candidate and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve done. Here’s what I’ll do.’”
If independent groups are still involved in a month, Brewer said, it could be a sign the strategy has worked.
“If they’re still pumping money in in early October, that would be a positive sign for Charlie Summers.”