AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Legislature just came back into session this month, but money is quietly rolling in for what’s shaping up to be a massive 2016 campaign.
Much of it — nearly $2 million in 2015 — has gone toward seven referendum efforts trying to get marijuana legalization, gun control, a minimum wage hike, ranked-choice voting, K-12 education funding, a southern Maine casino and tax and welfare reform on the November ballot, according to the most recent filings with the Maine Ethics Commission.
But control of the Legislature also hangs in the balance. Republicans hold a slim five-seat advantage in the Senate while Democrats have nine more seats in the House, and their fundraising hauls reflect that.
Combined, the parties’ House and Senate caucuses raised $758,000 in 2015, with Democrats raising more than 70 percent of that. However, both parties are well ahead of their totals from two years ago, and top legislators also are raising money to boost those efforts and their profiles.
Here are four key takeaways from the fundraising so far:
Maine’s large number of referendum efforts on divisive issues led to nearly $2 million in campaign spending in 2015, with the gun control effort leading the way.
Referendum drives aren’t easy in Maine: This year, campaigns have to submit more than 61,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office by Feb. 1 to qualify for the ballot.
That requires organization: Of the seven campaigns that have been gathering signatures, all but one spent more than $100,000 on their efforts in 2015.
The largest campaign has come from advocates of mandatory background checks on private gun purchases, an effort being funded by Everytown for Gun Safety, a national gun control group connected to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Two signature-gathering firms have taken in about $1 million of that, with a lot more yet to be reported.
About half of that referendum money has gone to two signature-gathering companies. Their workers effectively had to wrap up work on Friday because city and town clerks have 10 days to verify signatures before they go to the state.
The ranked-choice effort has been certified, with the minimum wage and gun control campaigns submitting signatures for their efforts.
Fieldworks LLC, a Washington, D.C., company that manages petition drives, has cleaned up: It made $782,000 in 2015 with work on the gun control and marijuana campaigns.
But it also has been good for a Maine company. Olympic Consulting, which is run by former Republican legislator Stavros Mendros of Lewiston, brought in $214,000 last year by doing work for the casino, marijuana, education and tax and welfare campaigns.
The casino campaign has generated controversy: It’s funded by the sister of Shawn Scott, a Las Vegas casino developer who would reportedly be the only person who could get a York County casino under the proposal, and gatherers reportedly have been paid as much as $10 per signature.
Much of the signature effort for the casino happened in January, so more money will be reported later for that and other campaigns.
The campaign arms of Maine’s legislative caucuses have raised $758,000, with Democrats dominating so far.
The fundraising figures for Maine’s legislative caucuses reflect a pool of races that could lead to shifts in control of one or both chambers. Democrats have raised $539,000 of that so far, with Republicans well behind at $218,000.
Together, they’re 18 percent ahead of where they were in 2014, though, and that year, Republicans won back the Senate and gained seats in the House. Democrats think the presidential election of 2016 will bode well for them, but Republicans have pushed back on that notion.
Senate Democrats raised the most of the four party caucuses in 2015 at $285,000, compared with $112,000 for their Republican counterparts. House Democrats raised $254,000 to Republicans’ $106,000.
Democrats’ totals were boosted by $110,000 contributions from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a group that supports legislative campaigns across the country.
Battles for leadership positions are shaping up, and the hopefuls’ political action committees are raising money in kind.
Watching legislators’ individual PACs is a good way to gauge their hopes and dreams, and they raised $673,000 in 2015, with most of that — just over $364,000 — going to Democrats, who will often give much of that money to coordinated party campaign efforts.
Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is term-limited, but still leading the way in fundraising, bringing in $108,000 in 2015. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, is Republicans’ top fundraiser so far at $65,000.
But in second place among Democrats is Troy Jackson, the Allagash Democrat and former Senate majority leader who is running for his old seat in 2016. His PAC has raised $53,000, and he has said he’d consider running for leadership if he wins his election.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, is defending his position well, though: He raised $51,000 in 2015’s last three months, bringing his total to $59,000 for the year.
On the House side, the race for the position held by term-limited House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, is likely being fought between Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport.
Fredette’s PAC raised $49,000 for the year to Gideon’s $45,000, good for third place finishes among members of their respective parties.