Maine Democrats may not be too worried about money in state politics at the moment. After all, they and their allies dominated Republicans in campaign spending this past election cycle on their way to an unquestionable blue wave in Augusta.
Republicans are often cast as the party of deep pockets when it comes to campaign spending. But here in Maine, Democrats and their outside supporters enjoyed a significant fundraising advantage this November over their counterparts on the right.
It was a particularly good fundraising cycle for Democrats here in the state, even as the party’s own long-shot candidate for U.S. Senate, Zak Ringelstein, made “get money out of politics” a central message of his candidacy — and on his campaign signs.
In the 2018 election, state Democrats and their allies spent $35.6 million compared to $21.8 million from Republicans and their supportive outside groups. Democratic fundraising outpaced the competition in key races that ultimately tipped in their favor, with Gov. Janet Mills outraising Republican Shawn Moody by $1.2 million and 2nd District Rep. Jared Golden outraising Bruce Poliquin in the most expensive U.S. House race in Maine’s history.
The campaign cash advantage is nothing new for Democrats in Maine, who have won the outside spending battle in state Legislature contests for the past five election cycles. But this year’s breakdown was particularly remarkable.
Outside spending, sometimes framed as “dark money” and more frequently targeted by critics on the left, is political spending that advocates for or against a candidate but is not given to a candidate or political party. These “independent expenditures” are not subject to the same level of disclosure requirements as direct contributions to candidates and parties, hence the dark money moniker.
Democrats were bolstered by an outside spending advantage in several key races. Outside spending favored Mills by more than a 2-1 ratio. Golden benefited from more than $3.3 million more outside spending in his race compared to Poliquin’s outside backing (which was still substantial). And in one of the most hotly contested and expensive state races, more than $250,000 in outside money supported Democratic Sen. Ned Claxton, compared to less than $100,000 for his District 20 Republican opponent, former Rep. Ellie Espling.
To be clear, it’s not just outside spending where state Democrats are surpassing Republicans in campaign cash. Democrats have also smartly embraced state public campaign financing with greater vigor than Republicans.
Nationwide, Democrats have been able to tap into grassroots fundraising from small donors in a more organized and fruitful way than Republicans. As reported by the New York Times, Democrats turned to online fundraising network ActBlue as part of its small donation effort and tripled Republican small donor money $296 million to $85 million. In Maine, ActBlue’s statewide arm was the second highest-spending political action committee in 2018 with more than $1.7 million spent. First on that list was the Maine Democratic State Committee, which dedicated nearly $3.8 million this election to expenditures such as campaign worker salaries, mailings and contributions to other candidate and party committees.
National and state Republicans alike have framed that grassroots success as a “green wave” for Democrats, and it’s one Republicans are sure to try to replicate in future elections.
Democrats may currently be more willing to decry the influence of money in politics and to advocate for campaign finance reforms, but they are clearly willing to engage and thrive in the current campaign finance system that they sometimes criticize. And here in Maine, they’re doing it quite well.