AUGUSTA, Maine — The steady, precipitous decline in participation in Maine’s publicly funded election program continues this year, with only about half of all legislative candidates opting to forgo private campaign contributions.
After bipartisan participation that surpassed 75 percent during the 2000s, more Maine legislative candidates in 2014 are turning away from the state’s public campaign financing program — in part because they fear being swept to defeat by a deluge of outside spending that publicly funded candidates can’t match.
The 1996 Maine Clean Elections Act established a program for full public financing for election campaigns. Under the act, candidates seek small contributions of at least $5 from constituents, which are paid into a state account. If they collect enough, they qualify for set amounts of public financing, and are prohibited from raising any more campaign cash through private donations.
The idea, according to proponents of the system, was that with public funds in hand, candidates would spend time debating the issues and talking with voters, rather than seeking out big-money contributions or embarking on an endless race for campaign cash.
In 2006 and 2008, at its peak, roughly eight in 10 Maine candidates chose the public funding route for their campaigns. In 2010, 77 percent of legislative candidates were publicly financed, a figure in keeping with the norm throughout the previous decade.
But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2011 struck down a portion of the Clean Elections law that allowed publicly financed candidates to draw down additional, “matching” funds if they were being dramatically outspent.
Combined with 2010’s Citizens United ruling, which heralded a rapid influx in campaign spending nationwide, Clean Elections candidates became impotent in contests against privately funded opponents and outside groups. In 2012, participation in the program dropped to 63 percent.
This year, just 51 percent of candidates are running “clean.” The largest decline came from GOP candidates in the House, of whom just 32 out of 149, or about 21 percent, are publicly financed. That’s down from 41 percent in 2012.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette of Newport said it’s not just the fear of being unable to compete with limitless spending from traditional opponents or outside groups that has GOP candidates eschewing Clean Elections; It’s also an aversion to taking taxpayer dollars for themselves.
“They don’t want this government money to run their campaign,” Fredette said Wednesday. “It’s the philosophy that government shouldn’t provide money to me to run for office. I should raise that money myself, if I want to be a candidate.”
Publicly financed House candidates in Maine this year receive $4,724 for contested general elections, while Senate candidates receive $21,749. Advocates for the system say that’s not enough to guarantee an effective campaign anymore, given the huge influx of campaign cash in recent years.
BJ McCollister, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, said he wasn’t surprised by the drop in participation this year, after candidates saw what happened to publicly financed candidates in 2012.
“In 2012, everybody said ‘It won’t be that bad,” McCollister said Wednesday. “Then they saw what happened to people like Dick Woodbury, and Nichi Farnham and Geoff Gratwick. They said ‘Wow, we’re not going to be able to compete at all with these outside groups.”
Farnham, a Republican incumbent, and Gratwick, a Democrat, both ran as Clean Elections candidates for a Bangor Senate District in 2012. Their race attracted more outside spending than any other in Maine history — roughly $450,000.
Without the ability to raise more money to counter the outside messaging, McCollister said both Gratwick and Farnham were effectively shouted down by third-party groups.
Woodbury, a Yarmouth independent, said he registered as a Clean Elections candidate in 2012 after doing so in four previous elections. More than $95,000 was spent benefitting his opponent, Republican Christopher Tyll — roughly four-and-a-half times the amount spent for Woodbury. The independent won the election despite the overwhelming cash support for his opponent.
Woodbury said Wednesday that if he were to run again, he would run as a privately financed candidate.
He also said he supported an initiative by McCollister’s group that would allow publicly funded candidates to qualify for additional state funding by collecting additional qualifying contributions from voters. That way, Clean Elections candidates have an outlet to get more money if the race becomes too one-sided.
“I am really hopeful that this initiative, this citizen initiative campaign, will restore a system that’s closer to what we had,” Woodbury said.
“It is a tremendously rich experience to be in a campaign where both candidates are Clean Elections,” he also said. “The entire time, in the midst of campaigns, is focused on talking about views, what they hope to accomplish and what kind of people they are. That kind of issue-focused attention, to me, is just so much more what democracy should be about than trying to raise money all the time.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.