AUGUSTA, Maine — Spending by outside groups to influence Maine elections has skyrocketed since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court through the landmark Citizens United case lifted restrictions on independent expenditures.
Since the Citizens United decision, spending on Maine elections has grown by millions of dollars. Independent expenditures — political spending not associated with any candidate’s campaign — on gubernatorial elections jumped from about $600,000 in 2006 to more than $4 million in 2010. That’s an increase of 650 percent. Legislative races saw a massive influx as well, from about $600,000 in 2008 to $1.5 million in 2010 and $3.6 million in 2012. That’s a jump of roughly 547 percent.
Many in Augusta predict 2014 will be another record-breaking election year for independent expenditures, sometimes called “dark money.”
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, a group that supports public campaign financing, compiled publicly available data in a new report titled “The Shell Game: How Independent Expenditures Have Invaded Maine Since Citizens United,” released on Monday.
While the court held that political spending constitutes protected free speech, the clean elections group says the rapid influx from independent expenditures — which often come from untraceable sources funneling money through nonprofit organizations and political action groups — results in a lack of accountability.
“Voters are hearing more from outside groups than from the candidates themselves,” said BJ McCollister, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections program. “It is nearly impossible for voters to find out who is ultimately paying for the political ads in our elections. These large, untraceable expenditures pose a serious risk to our democracy.”
The report highlights the growing use of independent expenditures to influence Maine elections and highlights the myriad ways an individual with a lot of money can skirt campaign disclosure and remain anonymous. It also showed how groups from outside Maine, and from all parts of the political spectrum, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence Maine elections.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections even traced a dotted line from two well-known political funders — liberal George Soros and the conservative Koch brothers — to the most targeted Maine Senate election in 2012, the Senate District 32 race between Democrat Geoff Gratwick and Republican Nichi Farnham.
Independent expenditures in that Bangor-area race reached $454,000, with money spent on negative advertising outweighing positive ads more than 3-to-1. Both candidates ran under Maine’s Clean Election Act, which publicly funds candidate campaigns. Each spent the limit of about $21,000 on the race.
Gratwick eventually won the contest, but at a cost, he said.
“I feel contaminated by it all, and it’s hard to get used to that,” Gratwick said Monday. “It’s not a position I wanted to be in, in the slightest.”
Gratwick said he thinks he would have won the election even without all the outside spending. But he said the experience soured him so much that he’s considered not running for re-election. If he does, he said he’ll have this message for the people in Bangor:
“Any ad, you should always read the small print. If it’s not from me, it’s garbage,” he said. “These people don’t speak for me. This isn’t who I am, and I don’t think it’s who Nichi Farnham is either.”
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections calls for more transparency and financial disclosures for those who fund the PACs, nonprofit organizations, corporations and labor unions spending millions on independent expenditures.
Not so fast, says David Crocker, a Portland lawyer who leads the Center for Constitutional Government at the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center.
“As a general matter, I’m in favor of disclosure, but on the other hand, even disclosure can be abused,” he said. “I know people who have given money to the National Organization for Marriage [a leading opponent of same-sex marriage], and they don’t want to be harassed by folks who don’t like NOM. So for every yin, there’s a yang.”
Further, Crocker said anonymity has a long tradition in American political discourse, including the distribution of patriotic pamphlets leading up to the Revolutionary War, many of which were penned anonymously.
Crocker also said the anonymous source of independent expenditures is an overstated phenomena.
“If you take even five minutes to do a few searches online, you can probably tell who’s doing the speaking,” he said. “Given the nature of the speech going on, you can get a pretty good idea.”
Proponents of publicly funded campaigns also say the influence of independent expenditures has grown since a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended the practice of automatically giving matching funds to Clean Elections candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents.
In an interview, McCollister said that taking away matching funds made last-minute independent expenditures more attractive because the opposed candidate would have no way of raising more money to fight back the attacks.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections supports a bill by Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer, that would replace matching funds with a new system to supplement Maine Clean Elections candidates. The bill was tabled earlier this year and carried over to the legislative session that begins in January.
Youngblood said Monday that the Clean Elections program offers candidates enough money to run “a reasonable campaign,” but that the pressure from independent expenditures is too much for the program to handle without supplemental funds.
Opponents of publicly financed campaigns, including Crocker, argue that taxpayer money has no place in political elections.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.