Record levels of money have poured into Maine’s competitive race between U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and House Speaker Sara Gideon, shaking up the TV market for candidates and non-candidates and raising questions about how it can all be spent effectively by Election Day.
Gideon raised a whopping $39.4 million during the third quarter of 2020, the second-highest total raised in a three-month period by any U.S. Senate candidate ever. Collins’ campaign raised $8.3 million over the same period, which would have been a Maine record had it not been for Gideon’s fundraising among a wave of Democrats posting unprecedented numbers.
Money is not always a deciding factor in Maine campaigns, with well-funded referendums including a gun background check question turned down by voters in 2016 and candidates over the past decade failing due to lack of grassroots support. But money gives candidates the chance to saturate airwaves with their messaging and target supporters for turnout.
Few Senate campaigns have ever worked with as much money as Gideon, particularly in a small state like Maine with relatively cheap advertising rates. The Democrat’s campaign raised $63.6 million overall and entered October with $22.7 million on hand, slightly more than the $22 million it spent over the previous three months.
Collins has raised a solid $25.2 million overall with $6.6 million left, but it looks small by comparison. She is still hanging tough in the race, trailing Gideon in polls by an average of just over 4 percentage points going back to mid-September. A Decision Desk HQ model gave Gideon a 70 percent chance of winning to Collins’ 30 percent as of Friday.
Toby McGrath, a Democratic strategist who ran the 2008 and 2012 campaigns for former President Barack Obama in Maine, said he was not sure how one would spend as much money as Gideon has between now and the election. If she won, she could roll leftover money into another campaign. If she lost, she could earn goodwill by handing it to her party. Still, McGrath noted that the sum ensures the ability to saturate just about every ad market.
“With that kind of money, you can reach people anywhere and everywhere,” he said.
Ads made up the majority of the Gideon campaign’s spending from July to September, with over $11 million going to the production and airing of TV and digital ads, according to finance reports. The campaign also transferred more than $4.1 million to the Maine Democratic Party.
As much as all of that is, it accounts for only a fraction of the ad spending in Maine this year. The Portland-Auburn TV market alone has seen $89 million in political ad spending this year, according to Advertising Analytics, more than massive markets like Dallas and Chicago. The only other small markets to see a greater level of spending than Portland-Auburn were in Iowa, which saw millions in presidential ads during its first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses earlier this year and also has a competitive Senate race.
Gideon is far from the only big spender in Maine. Collins’ campaign reported spending $4.3 million on media production and ad buys during the third quarter, according to her campaign finance report. The two longshot independents in the race, Lisa Savage and Max Linn, do not have that kind of money to spend, though both have invested in some TV and radio ads.
President Donald Trump, a Republican, and former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, are also running TV and online ads in Maine, as are U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, and his Republican challenger, former state Rep. Dale Crafts.
Outside spending in the Senate race has continued to grow, with nearly $70 million in independent expenditure spending as of Friday, spanning TV, radio and digital ads as well as direct mail and text messaging. Dark money groups have also spent more than $10 million, though they are mostly quiet now.
There are a limited number of TV ad spots available, and the demand for air time in Maine has driven up prices, particularly for outside groups that are looking to spend on the U.S. Senate race or any other political issue. Under federal regulations, TV stations are required to charge campaigns the lowest rate they offer for ads, but there are no rules limiting the rates they charge other groups.
Advertising is not the only way campaigns try to persuade and turn out voters, but the coronavirus outbreak has also limited operations of other activities such as door-knocking, which can be expensive because it requires significant staff time, McGrath noted.
With TV markets expensive and saturated, candidates and outside groups have also turned to digital media, where advertising is cheaper and largely unregulated and a few hundred dollars can generate tens of thousands of impressions.
Maine has been targeted by $2.4 million in Facebook ads in the last month alone, according to the site’s data, led by $500,000 from the Gideon campaign as well as six-figure buys from Priorities USA, a liberal super PAC, and the Collins campaign.