AUGUSTA, Maine — Need a sign that the battle for control of the Maine Legislature is intensifying? Look to your mailbox.
If you live in a select handful of state Senate and House districts, you’re probably seeing the result of nearly $375,000 the state’s Democratic and Republican parties have spent on political mailers since mid-August in an effort to win legislative seats that ultimately could decide which party controls the House and Senate chambers.
In the last two weeks alone, the two major parties have pumped more than $220,000 into mail pieces — about $137,000 from Democrats and nearly $85,000 from Republicans — that expressly support or oppose the election of House and Senate candidates, according to expenditure reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission. For the Senate, a half dozen races appear to have most consistently attracted the parties’ attention in recent weeks. The list of House races is considerably longer.
By this point in 2010, the parties hadn’t even started spending their funds on mail pieces specifically supporting or opposing the election of legislative candidates. At this point in 2008, the state’s Democratic party had spent only $4,700 on a mail piece supporting a single Senate candidate, according to Ethics Commission records.
“To me, the conclusion one can draw based on the level of spending so far is that everybody recognizes that control of both chambers is up for grabs and that it’s going to be a close election,” said Josh Tardy, a former House Republican leader who directed legislative campaigns.
And while the parties together have recorded $375,000 in spending on legislative campaign mailers so far, that number doesn’t offer a complete picture of the total amount parties have spent on legislative campaign mail.
That’s because if third-party campaign mailers don’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate’s election, political parties and outside groups aren’t required to report them to the Maine Ethics Commission within two days of making the expenditure until the final 35 days of the campaign.
Quarterly campaign finance reports due next week will offer additional insight into what the parties have spent to mail out their messages.
While the Maine Republican Party has spent nearly $85,000 on campaign mailers expressly supporting or opposing candidates since mid-September, the party also recently launched a mail campaign that encourages voters to call the Republican candidate in their district and “thank him for fighting for Maine working people and advocating for lower state taxes.”
A Republican mailer in August compared the voting records of GOP legislators and their Democratic predecessors, saying, “What a difference one year can make.” By avoiding express advocacy, the party hasn’t had to publicly report spending for those mailings or which legislative districts they targeted.
“It just depends on what kind of a message we want to send to which district,” said Maine GOP spokesman David Sorensen. “Sometimes an advertisement that doesn’t expressly say, ‘Vote for so and so,’ is a little more convincing. Other times, we see fit to expressly say, ‘Vote for so and so.’”
The Senate race that’s most consistently attracted the parties’ attention so far is in Senate District 32, where Democrats have spent $23,000 on mailers so far in hopes of recapturing a seat they lost in 2010. First-term Republican Sen. Nichi Farnham of Bangor is facing a challenge from Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick in that district.
Farnham said the mailers aren’t coming up in her conversations with voters. “I’m doing what I set out to do in my plan,” she said, “which was to go door to door and meet with as many voters as possible.
Another district that has captured the attention of both parties is Senate District 20 in Lincoln and Knox counties, where Democrats are trying to defend their special election victory in February. That’s when Sen. Chris Johnson of Somerville won what was a Republican seat. Republicans, whose candidate is Rep. Les Fossel of Alna, are trying to recapture it.
Johnson said outside mailers don’t seem to be making a difference at this point in the campaign. “I haven’t heard from anyone saying I’ve received a mailer and it changed my mind,” he said.
The parties have targeted more than three dozen House districts in recent mailing campaigns.
Reinholt said the Democratic Party is targeting a number of districts where Democrats lost seats in 2010, when Republicans took over control of both the House and Senate. In deciding on races to target, she said, Democrats also consider whether their candidates have built up strong volunteer and supporter networks and whether voters seem to be responding well when the candidates knock on doors.
“There’s no denying our top priority is winning back the Legislature,” Reinholt said.
Sorensen said Republicans take into account polling, whether their candidates are well known in their communities and a range of other factors in deciding which races to target.
“We are incredibly confident with our slate of candidates,” he said.
And campaign mail pieces, along with phone calls to voters, are a key part of what the political parties do to support their legislative candidates in key districts.
“They’re cost-effective,” Sorensen said. “They’re eye-catching when you get a big, glossy mailer.”
And they’re targeted precisely to voters in a particular district, said Reinholt.
“When it comes to the size of our House districts, going up on radio and TV does cost a lot of money,” she said. “We have to use our resources really smartly, and you never know how many people you’re connecting with when you go on TV and radio.”
In addition to heated competition, said Tardy, the former House Republican leader, legislative mailers are coming earlier this year than they have in the past as an increasing number of people cast their ballots early. But spending on mailers from both sides is likely to pick up in the final month of the campaign, he said.
“That’s typically how the final month of the campaign goes,” Tardy said. “The mailboxes become targets.”