PORTLAND, Maine — Have you got $500 to spare? Well, you might just be among the group of 2,604 people, companies and outside political groups who spent at least that much in Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial election so far.
A report released Thursday by Maine Citizens for Clean Elections points out the influence of what the campaign spending watchdog group deemed large contributions to gubernatorial candidates. The group defined “large donations” as cash infusions of more than $500.
The number of donations that size has almost tripled since 2010, a sign of the increasing role of large contributions in the race for Maine’s top office.
In 2010, big contributions made up for about 20 percent of the campaigns’ total take. As of an Oct. 21 filing, this year’s campaign had more than 62 percent of donations come in chunks of more than $500.
The financial dynamics in this year’s hotly contested three-person governor’s race are different, however, from 2010. Most notably, there is no publicly financed candidate in the race, as public funds for the governor’s race were cut from the state budget last year. In 2010, Democrat Libby Mitchell received about $1.8 million in public money.
It also should be noted that the 2010 ballot included five candidates, while this year’s lists three — incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democrat Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler.
And while Cutler was in both races, he self-financed his 2010 run much more heavily than his 2014 run. In 2010, he spent about $2.7 million of his own money compared with about $1.2 million this year.
The analysis, confirmed in an independent review by the Bangor Daily News, shows that the public funding and private money has been supplanted at least in part by donors giving more than $500 to each of the three leading candidates.
The report from the campaign spending watchdog group aims to make a case for restoring those funds.
“Without a gubernatorial Clean Elections program we will continue to see these elections become a political playground for wealthy donors while everyday voters lose,” said BJ McCollister, program director for Maine Citizens for Clean Elections.
The public campaign financing program has faced other challenges in the last year, most notably from a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2011 that struck down a provision allowing for publicly funded candidates to receive more money late in the race if their privately financed opponent went on late spending sprees.
Those court decisions’ results in Maine legislative races were evident this year, with a steep drop in the percentage of candidates using the public financing system. That number was down to about 53 percent after hovering around 80 percent for the 2006, 2008 and 2010 elections.
But while big-money donors are making up a large piece of the fundraising pie in the governor’s race, the amount contributed by donors giving less than $500 at one time also has increased.
The analysis does not account for donors who gave $500 or more in aggregate over multiple smaller donations, a count that would surely boost the number of donors spending at least that amount to influence the gubernatorial race in either year.
Separately, an even larger amount has come from political action committees and party committees, which had already spent more than $10 million in Maine’s gubernatorial race as of Oct. 21. That’s just shy of the $10.5 million that outside groups and campaigns together put into the 2010 race, and the donations haven’t stopped rolling in this year.
In total, contributions to Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial candidates were up about 18 percent by the latest tally. If past practice holds, a spike in spending during the last five days before Election Day, Nov. 4, can be expected.
Candidates raised about $6.5 million in 2010, compared with $7.6 million so far this year.