Residents of Bangor and Hermon: Brace yourselves for yet another influx of political mailers, phone calls, radio and TV ads, and campaign canvassers. Your state Senate district is once again in play.
Former Bangor Mayor Cary Weston’s announcement this week that he plans to challenge first-term incumbent Democratic Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick is a sign that the political spending floodgates are about to open.
The Republicans have a candidate who likely can muster a strong showing against an incumbent Democrat who would be seeking a second term. That means both parties will be paying close attention.
The Senate district that encompasses Bangor and Hermon — it’ll be renamed District 9 for next year’s contest, abandoning its old District 32 moniker because of redistricting — has proven a major political battleground in recent elections. It figures prominently into both parties’ attempts to gain control of the state Senate.
In 2010, the out-of-state Republican State Leadership Committee waded into five key state Senate races, including the Bangor-area race between incumbent Democratic state Sen. Joseph Perry and Republican challenger Nichi Farnham. The group spent $400,000, and Republicans claimed victory in all five districts and control of the Senate in a banner year for the GOP.
Last year, the bar was raised higher. Outside forces, not the candidates, poured more than $450,000 into the race for the Bangor and Hermon Senate seat, which pitted Gratwick against Farnham, then a first-term incumbent. It was the most expensive Senate race in state history during the most expensive legislative election cycle in Maine history. The Gratwick-Farnham matchup was one of eight state Senate contests in 2012 that attracted more than $100,000 in third-party spending.
For context, a state Senate district includes about 36,000 people.
The major spenders were in-state organizations funded heavily by out-of-state interests. In addition to the state Democratic and Republican parties, two political action committees were prominent players.
The Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class, funded by both statewide and nationwide unions and liberal organizations, paid for repeated ads attacking Farnham. The largely corporate-backed Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC shelled out thousands of dollars to oppose Gratwick and help Farnham.
In the end, according to the Maine Ethics Commission, Democratic forces spent $247,000 on the race; 74 percent of it funded attacks on Farnham as opposed to positive publicity for Gratwick. GOP forces spent $207,000, using 78 percent to attack Gratwick.
In the process, the outside voices — by law, they can’t coordinate with the candidates they’re helping — drowned out the voices of Gratwick and Farnham, the two Bangor residents vying to represent their neighbors in the state Senate. Farnham became a “rubber stamp” for Gov. Paul LePage, while Gratwick, a rheumatologist, became “Dr. Taxes” in political mailers and TV ads. The outside spending itself became a major focus in the contest, rather than a substantive discussion of state policies.
It’s admittedly early, but the 2014 contest is shaping up to look a lot like the 2012 race. It could very well prove more expensive.
It’s not that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling — which determined independent political expenditures by corporations and labor unions couldn’t be restricted since the spending amounted to First Amendment-protected speech — has unleashed the flood of spending for a Maine Senate race. Maine law never has limited third-party independent spending by political action committees and parties.
Rather, the Citizens United ruling has contributed to a culture change that has made politics even more of a big-money sport.
With the expected flood of spending, Weston and Gratwick — assuming they’re final candidates; neither one has yet filed the necessary paperwork — easily could become pawns in an arms race between the political parties and their allies.
Voters can change that dynamic, however. Become educated. Pay attention to the disclosures behind the mailers, advertisements and robo-calls promoting one candidate or attacking another. Research which entities actually are making their voices heard through innocuous-sounding political action committees such as the Committee to Rebuild Maine’s Middle Class.
Most of all, research the candidates as best you can and engage them when they knock on your door.
Know who’s trying to control your vote, and don’t relinquish that control.