February 28, 2020
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Democrats reaped little return for heavy attack ad spending in Maine Senate races

Erin Rhoda | BDN
Erin Rhoda | BDN
Maine State House

BANGOR, Maine — Outside groups working to elect Democrats to the Maine Senate spent more on negative advertising than their opponents in almost every case but received very little return on that hefty investment.

Other than in Bangor-area Senate District 9, where outside groups working to re-elect incumbent Democratic Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick spent nearly three times as much as allies of his Republican opponent Cary Weston, independent expenditures on negative ads supporting Democrats in most key Maine Senate races exceeded what Republicans spent, but did little to push Democrats to victory.

The big picture: Democrats lost the Senate to Republicans, giving majority status that Democrats held since 2012 back to the GOP amid a national sweep for the party. Unofficial results — which do not reflect the outcome of likely recounts — give the GOP a 20-15 advantage in the Maine Senate.

While the dynamics of each race vary, a comparison of what parties and political action committees paid and what they got on Election Day shows big spending on negative television ads by the Maine Democratic State Committee did not pay off for Senate Democrats.

That’s where most of the opposition spending was concentrated, with outside Democratic groups spending about $6.50 in opposition ads for every $3.50 outside Republican groups spent to support their Senate candidates.

The reverse was true in the House, where Democrats appear to have retained majority status — albeit by a slimmer margin — after spending about $2.50 in opposition ads for every $7.50 outside Republican groups spent to support their candidates.

Outside groups contributed to most of that negative advertising, with spending sprees in mid- and late October. The three costliest races were in District 9, where Democrats narrowly held Gratwick’s seat, in District 30, where one-term Gorham incumbent Democrat James Boyle lost to challenger Amy Volk of Scarborough, and in District 7, where former lawmaker Ted Koffman couldn’t surpass incumbent Republican Brian Langley in Hancock County.

In total, campaigns and outside groups supporting Democrats for the Legislature spent about $3.2 million across all 186 contests, compared with $2.5 million spent by campaigns and outside groups supporting Republicans. Most of that spending was for Senate campaigns — and most was primarily negative.

In the 10 races that attracted the most spending, Democrats lost six races, including three that knocked incumbents out of office. The party fared much better in races for open seats, sweeping three that were among the 10 costliest for both parties.

One key race — the 10th-highest for total spending — was a particular coup for Republicans, in the Bath area, where Green Independent candidate Alice Knapp captured 11.8 percent of the vote as incumbent Democrat Eloise Vitelli fell to Republican Linda Baker by about 2 percentage points.

Here’s a look at the dynamics of spending in five top-grossing Senate races.

Boyle-Volk (Scarborough area): $336,548

Republican Amy Volk moved from the House to the Senate, overtaking incumbent Democrat James Boyle for the district representing suburban Portland in the costliest state-level race this year.

Volk took the race by about 6 percentage points in the contest that attracted the highest amount of outside spending for any state Senate race. Outside groups poured a total $257,192 into the race, adding to $79,356 spent by the campaigns.

Like the Gratwick-Weston race, the bulk of the outside money went to oppose Volk and support Boyle’s publicly financed campaign. Volk’s privately financed campaign outspent Boyle by about $30,000 but outside spending on his behalf gave Boyle twice the amount of total spending in his favor.

As in the other expensive contests, Democratic outside groups spent heavily on TV ads with a 2-to-1 ratio of opposition ads against Volk and support ads for Boyle. Outside groups spending on Volk’s behalf focused most of their attention on print advertisements and mailers.

Gratwick-Weston (Bangor/Hermon): $295,582

The Bangor district attracted massive spending that paid off for incumbent Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick, who held the seat by about 600 votes, taking 52.6 percent of the vote in preliminary results.

That vote difference was hard won, judging by the money spent in the race. Outside groups hoping to propel the publicly financed Gratwick to victory spent $197,254, mostly in television ads to oppose Republican challenger Cary Weston.

Gratwick, who used the state’s public campaign financing program to run his race, spent less from his own campaign than Weston, but combined spending in his favor still far outpaced Weston, whose campaign raised about $43,633.

Campaign and outside spending combined, the effort to re-elect Gratwick outspent the effort for Weston by about $200,000.

Langley-Koffman (Hancock County): $280,979

Brian Langley fended off a challenge from Democrat Ted Koffman by about 10 percentage points, despite a steep spending disadvantage by outside groups.

Outside groups spent about $145,813 on Koffman’s behalf, with a more even split between opposition and support television ads and mailers than the two highest-grossing races. Both candidates were privately financed, with Langley outspending Koffman by about $9,000.

Across all spending, Koffman had an $87,288 advantage in the losing race.

Libby-Gagne (Lewiston): $279,314

Democrat Nathan Libby won this open seat by a narrow margin in a battle outside groups fought primarily over the radio. Outside groups spent about $147,962 on Libby’s behalf, mostly to oppose Gagne’s run, compared with $51,756 spent on Gagne’s behalf.

Gagne, going against a publicly financed campaign, had a slight fundraising advantage of about $4,000.

Johnson-Fossel (Lincoln County): $211,160

Democratic incumbent Christopher Johnson held off a challenge from former legislator Les Fossel, in another battle outside groups fought primarily with mailers to support Johnson and radio ads to oppose Fossel.

Johnson’s publicly financed campaign had an advantage of about $2,500 over Fossel with a spending advantage from outside groups of about $125,500, which was split evenly between spending in his favor and spending to oppose Fossel.


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