AUGUSTA, Maine — A U.S. District Court judge has ruled the state must allow supporters of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler to double their contributions to his campaign to match the limit of contributors to his partisan opponents.
In Maine, individual contributions to political candidates are capped at $1,500 per election. Primaries, the tool used by political parties to select nominees for office, are considered elections, so Democratic and Republican candidates may accept $1,500 from an individual twice — once for the primary and again for the general election.
But supporters of partisan candidates are allowed to give the full $3,000 even before the primary — even if it’s clear that there will be no primary opponent for their candidate to face. After the June primary date passes, new contributors are limited to giving $1,500.
Cutler is running against incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. Neither faced a primary opponent this year.
Independent candidates such as Cutler don’t run in primary elections. They qualify for the general election ballot by collecting 4,000 certified signatures by Maine voters. The state has argued they could collect only up to $1,500 from any particular contributor.
In early July, Cutler supporters Amy Woodhouse of Freeport, Richard Scott of Freeport, William Hastings of Falmouth and J. Thomas Franklin of Portland, filed a lawsuit against the Maine Ethics Commission. They argued the state violated their constitutional rights by imposing on them a different aggregate limit than it imposed on supporters of party candidates.
Judge D. Brock Hornby agreed in a ruling on Friday. The ruling issued by Hornby on Friday was a not a decision on the constitutional questions raised by the plaintiffs, but a preliminary injunction against the state, ruling that the state must immediately allow Cutler’s supporters to donate up to $3,000. The question of timing was essential, he wrote.
“The plaintiffs’ right to exercise their First Amendment rights equally with other contributors should not be delayed,” Hornby wrote. “It should go without saying that if the plaintiffs are not able to contribute soon at the higher level, they will suffer irreparable injury. Timing is everything in an election. Contributing after a successful trial — unlikely to occur this year and therefore not before the election — would be fruitless.”
It is not immediately clear whether the state will appeal Hornby’s injunction. Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said his office would confer with Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, to examine its options.
Cutler said in a written statement Friday that he was “gratified” the court favored his supporters’ position.
“This ruling eliminates a longstanding fundraising advantage party candidates had over non-party candidates,” he said. “I am grateful to the citizens who stepped forward to challenge the law and am pleased that Judge Hornby saw the merits of their case.”
According to data made available by the Maine Ethics Commission, about 350 individuals and companies have each contributed $1,500 to Eliot Cutler’s gubernatorial campaign. If all of them double up now, it would mean a $525,000 injection into the independent’s campaign.
Matt McTighe, Michaud’s campaign manager, said the election wouldn’t be decided by the relatively small number of contributors who could afford to give thousands of dollars, but did pose a question as to whether all donors would be allowed to maximize up to $3,000.
“Although we didn’t participate in this court case, we’re pleased that all of our donors who have not yet contributed the new limit of $3,000 will be able to give additional resources to support Mike in his campaign to bring much-needed change to Augusta,” he wrote. “We ask the Election Commission to make an emergency ruling confirming our assumption that this ruling will be applied evenly to all candidates, as it should.”
Melissa Hewey, the attorney representing Cutler’s supporters, said McTighe’s assessment of the ruling was wrong. There’s no “new limit,” she said. The state is just being told to impose the same limit on all contributors, regardless of whom they support, according to her interpretation of Hornby’s ruling.
Michaud’s supporters are already allowed to give $3,000 total. Now, Cutler’s will, too, she said. But Hewey emphasized that despite its obvious impact on the candidates, this case was never about them and how many elections they have to face or not.
It’s about ensuring that all people are equally able to support their candidate of choice, she said.
“The focus of this case is not on what’s fair for the candidates, but what’s fair for the contributors,” she said. “Whatever [contribution] limits the Legislature thinks make sense, fine, but treat us all alike.”
The LePage campaign has not responded to opportunities to comment on this story.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine