BANGOR, Maine — State Democrat and Republican leaders are blasting each other this week for the large amount of out-of-state money that is being spent on negative advertising in local legislative races as the campaign season winds down.
The Maine Democratic Party has filed a complaint with the state alleging that an out-of-state political action committee that recently spent $400,000 to target five state Senate races violated Maine Clean Elections Law.
“For a national Republican group to exploit the state clean elections statutes creates an unequal playing field for Maine candidates,” said Dan Walker, legal counsel for the Maine Democrats.
The Maine Ethics Commission scheduled a special meeting on Tuesday to hear the complaint, which a top Democrat said has the potential to be the largest ethics violation in state history. The commission voted to investigate the matter but is not expected to settle the matter before Election Day, according to assistant director Paul Lavin.
“There is a relatively low threshold for investigations,” he said. “The commission determined that there was enough probable cause to suggest that a violation may have occurred.”
The races that have been targeted for opposition by the Republican State Leadership Committee of Alexandria, Va., are Senate Districts 15 (Androscoggin County), 24 (Kennebec County), 25 (Kennebec County), 28 (Hancock County) and 32 (Penobscot County). Four of the five races are open seats, meaning no incumbent is running for re-election. The fifth involves the District 32 race between Sen. Joe Perry, a Democrat, and Republican Nichi Farnham, both of Bangor.
The RSLC is backed by Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush, and has given money to numerous state Republican parties this year, according to news reports.
Arden Manning of the Maine Democratic Party said it’s not the amount of money that’s being spent by the RSLC but the timing of filing reports to the state that prompted the ethics complaint.
The reporting delay, Manning said, did not allow Maine Clean Elections Act candidates to receive matching funds in time to use them.
“This is a huge amount of money that’s being spent to oppose these candidates,” Manning said.
While the Ethics Commission was meeting Tuesday, Maine Republican Senate leaders leveled their own criticism of outside spending.
A joint statement released by Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye of Perry and Assistant Minority Leader Jonathan Courtney of Springvale criticized Democrats for accepting more than $1 million from billionaire investor Donald Sussman.
Sussman, the fiance of 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is running for re-election against Republican challenger Dean Scontras, has given $380,000 alone to the Equality Maine PAC, which supports mostly Democratic candidates who favor same-sex marriage.
“Sadly, some donors and groups on both sides seem more interested in creating a sideshow of negative attacks on other issues,” Raye said. “Frankly, I don’t care what side they are on; that is not how we do things in Maine and they should just butt out.”
State Republicans have been hopeful they can seize control of the Senate on Nov. 2. Democrats now hold a 20-15 edge, meaning the GOP needs to flip only three seats to gain a majority, something they have done for only one two-year period since 1982.
Some Maine Senate candidates have received a boost from high-profile surrogates. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has appeared at events with no fewer than eight Republican candidates, including Mike Thibodeau in District 23, Brian Langley in District 28 and Farnham in District 32.
Several Senate races have benefited from independent expenditures by registered political action committees, but candidates also are spending a lot of their own money. Both parties agreed the amount of money being spent this year is uncommonly high and the spending has been used overwhelmingly to fund negative ads.
“I’ve never seen this kind of money spent in local races,” Lavin said.
Lance Dutson with the Maine Republican Party said this year has seen a changing landscape but he said it speaks to the enthusiasm of state Republicans.
“We’re putting up such a fight this time because we’ve gotten our butt kicked for so many years,” he said.
Jim Schatz, a Democrat running for the open seat in District 28 (Hancock County) said he has seen mailings and ads paid for by the Republican State Leadership Committee.
“Even though I’m eligible for almost $40,000 in matching funds, I don’t want to spend it because it’s really taxpayer money,” Schatz said. “I don’t think I will spend it, but it puts me in a tough position. [Republicans] are trying to buy these elections.”
Republican candidates say they are being hurt by negative ads funded by Democratic groups.
“I am not running to tear down my opponents,” said Langley, Schatz’s opponent for the District 28 seat. “My campaign is about the need to fix Maine’s business climate, get debt under control and get Mainers working again.”
According to Lavin, the mechanics of matching funds are complicated.
Essentially, if expenditures are made by an independent group to support or oppose a candidate, that could result in matching funds for the other side based on the Maine Clean Elections Act. Matching funds are capped at two times the original amount given to a Clean Elections candidate, or about $38,000 for Senate hopefuls.
Manning said if out-of-state groups are going to send money to Maine, the state Democratic Party would accept it, but the rules need to be the same for both sides.
Dutson said, for him, there is a distinction between taking funds from national party committees and allowing one wealthy individual, such as Sussman, to fund one side.