June 05, 2020
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How dark money is shaping the message in Maine’s massive U.S. Senate race

Patrick Semansky; Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Patrick Semansky; Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Susan Collins, left, and Sara Gideon

AUGUSTA, Maine — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has a healthy fundraising lead in her 2020 bid for re-election, but an onslaught of ads against her by dark-money groups has her spending to defend herself on the air while her most well-funded Democratic opponent introduces herself.

More than $10 million has already been spent on ads in the Maine race, more than any other Senate race in the nation. The Republican incumbent and House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, spent nearly as much as they took in over the last three months of 2019 — something usually seen toward the end of election cycles rather than 10 months out.

Collins, who was one of the most popular senators in the country prior to President Donald Trump’s election, has been forced into difficult votes during his tenure, but her approval rating as measured by Morning Consult fell from 67 percent in early 2017 to 42 percent late last year.

Her vote in 2018 to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh sparked intense backlash on the national stage, solidifying her as one of Democrats’ top targets in 2020. Republicans have rushed to her defense. All of that is likely to continue after her vote this week to acquit Trump on House Democrats’ impeachment charges.

The Collins campaign is well-oiled, raising $10.9 million by the end of 2019, a record sum for a Maine politician. It spent just over $5 million dating back to 2015. During the fourth quarter of 2019, Collins spent $1.5 million on TV ads. At the same time, just two dark-money groups have doubled that level of spending to hit Collins on the air.

Majority Forward, a nonprofit tied to top Senate Democrats that started running ads in January 2019, and Maine Momentum, a group run by a Maine operative that started running ads in August, spent a combined $3 million on ads as of mid-January.

The ads have targeted Collins on subjects including her votes on the tax bill and Kavanaugh, as well as prescription drug prices and impeachment — though one spot tying Collins to Social Security and Medicare cuts was deemed misleading by the Washington Post’s Fact-Checker.

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for the Collins campaign, said that early spending — particularly on advertising — was seen as necessary to combat some of the anti-Collins TV ads.

“As long as these groups continue to run misleading ads, we will continue to remind Mainers what they already know — and that is that Senator Collins is a bipartisan, pragmatic, thoughtful legislator with a long record of bipartisan accomplishments,” Kelley said earlier this week.

Willy Ritch, who runs Maine Momentum, said that Collins’ campaign running ads in response to the group was a signal the senator was “at least listening to the Mainers in our commercials.”

In one way or another, it has allowed Gideon, the senator’s establishment-backed Democratic challenger, to use her resources to build a ground game and push her name on TV — outspending Collins there to date — as she aims to take on a four-term incumbent who won with a two-thirds majority in 2014.

While outside groups have attacked Collins, Gideon’s TV spots — on which her campaign spent nearly $1.4 million during the fourth quarter, according to her FEC filing — have largely been biographical. There is a reason for that. While polling in the race has been scant so far, an AARP poll last summer found that more than 70 percent of likely voters had not heard of Gideon.

The House Speaker’s campaign has also made building up a staff a priority, spending more than $300,000 on salaries during the second half of 2019 — more than seven times what Collins’ leaner campaign spent over the same period.

Gideon is well-resourced for a Democratic challenger, with her fundraising numbers — $7.6 million through the end of 2019 — well more than her competitors in the Democratic primary, including lobbyist and former gubernatorial candidate Betsy Sweet of Hallowell, former Google executive Ross LaJuenesse of Biddeford and Saco lawyer Bre Kidman.

Her campaign spent nearly $1.7 million on list acquisition, which typically references buying email addresses of potential voters or donors in order to initiate contact. Total campaign expenditures through the end of the year were just shy of $5 million.

Collins has also benefited from positive TV spots run by conservative dark money groups including One Nation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the tune of at least $1.5 million as of mid-January, according to Advertising Analytics.

TV advertising was the Collins campaign’s primary expenditure during the second half quarter of 2019, though other spending included more than $400,000 on fundraising services and $83,000 on polling during the period, according to her FEC filing.

Although the spending by Collins and Gideon is unprecedented in Maine’s political landscape, it is similar to other competitive Senate elections this year, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance.

In Kentucky, Democrat Amy McGrath has spent more than $7.8 million in her quest to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who has spent $3.9 million so far. In Arizona, incumbent Republican Martha McSally spent $5.6 million last year while Democratic challenger Mark Kelly spent more than $6.5 million.


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