Sara Gideon (left) and Susan Collins kicked off their campaigns for the U.S. Senate in Maine on July 15. Credit: BDN composite photo

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The slate of candidates in Maine’s 2020 U.S. Senate race has only been official for about two weeks since the state’s July 14 primary, but there have been no shortage of money or mischaracterizations being thrown around in this contest of state and national importance.

The expected clash between Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon had long been projected to smash campaign spending records in Maine. Even with those expectations in place, we have to admit being surprised at just how fact-challenged and nasty things have gotten already.

In mid June, Gideon’s campaign received three “pinocchios” from the Washington Post for a misleading ad about Collins and the Paycheck Protection Program she helped author, which has helped over 27,000 Maine businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic (including the Bangor Daily News).

The Post fact checker uses the pinocchios scale to rate the level of truth in a given claim, and three pinocchios means “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” Not a good look for the Gideon team, but also not the only three pinocchio-worthy arguments made in this campaign thus far.

We haven’t seen the Washington Post weigh in on the refrain from the Collins campaign about Gideon supposedly doing nothing in her role as the Speaker of the Maine House during the pandemic. But if we’re allowed to borrow their rating scale, that claim is also rife with “significant factual error/or obvious contradictions.”

While we’ve been clear about the need for the Legislature to come together and play a bigger role in the state’s COVID-19 response, and Gideon ultimately bears significant responsibility as one of the presiding officers, the notion that she has done nothing and unilaterally kept the Legislature shuttered is just plain incorrect. Republicans and Democrats came together to smartly suspend session in March, committee meetings have been taking place, and it was most Republicans who declined two weeks ago to seize an opportunity to move toward a special session.

It’s not only the campaigns trading hyperbolic and unhelpful rhetoric. The worst offenders might be the outside groups. The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), for example, attacked Gideon in June with an ad that misrepresented the timing of Gideon’s response to troubling allegations of sexual misconduct against former Rep. Dillon Bates. Maine Momentum, a dark money “social welfare“ organization, earned its own three pinocchios from the Post last year for an ad that tried to claim Collins jeopardized Social Security and Medicare with her tax cut vote.

Much like the misinformation, the overall amount of money in this race is eye-popping, with the two campaigns hauling in more than $40 million combined thus far and already spending most of it. There has also been a deluge of mostly negative advertising from outside groups and dark money sources.

A majority of the $16.2 million in independent expenditures from outside groups through July 27 has gone toward negative advertising. Two Republican groups, the 1820 PAC and the NRSC, have spent $7.6 million combined in support of Collins and against Gideon. The Senate Majority PAC, tied to Democratic leadership, has spent more than $4 million against Collins.

All of that doesn’t even include the 501(c)(4) dark money groups like Maine Momentum, which can’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate but also don’t have to disclose their donors. Maine Momentum and another Democratic group, Majority Forward, have topped $7.4 million in ad spending. Republican group One Nation has spent over $3.1 million.

If it wasn’t already clear before, it’s increasingly obvious that the battle being fought isn’t just about who Maine sends to the U.S. Senate, but which party controls the U.S. Senate. The money and national attention will continue to pour in, and the misleading ads are sure to keep following.

It’s a shame, because this senate race should reflect the needs and interests of Maine people, not the hopes and strategies of national groups and leaders. As Maine voters try to sift through the seemingly endless attack ads and accusations, they should maintain a heavy dose of skepticism and keep an eye out for pinocchio-worthy claims. And they shouldn’t forget that there are well-resourced groups stringing these claims together behind the scenes, and it’s not always clear who they are or who funds them.

There’s been little substantive focus, in the ads at least, about the issues that matter to Mainers — like health care, climate change, the economy. The spending and attack ads, especially from outside groups, are in danger of drowning out a discussion that is essential to helping Maine voters make this important choice.