Republican Sen. Susan Collins (right) gestures toward her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, while answering a question during the Decision Maine debate in Portland on Sept. 11. Credit: Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

Partisan websites are a flashpoint in Maine’s competitive U.S. Senate race as sites aligned with groups that work on campaigns or are fed information by operatives produce articles dotting ads against Sen. Susan Collins and her Democratic opponent, House Speaker Sara Gideon.

News sites are generally exempt from rules governing campaign speech and financial disclosure. Sites have popped up to mimic them or fill roles played by legacy media outlets. While being partisan does not mean claims are incorrect, their strong headlines and portrayals of candidates can boost campaigns and outside groups in a partisan ecosystem by racking up social media shares and serving as convenient sources for attack ads.

One such site, Maine Business Daily, was the subject of a New York Times investigation on a national network of 1,300 affiliated sites posing as local news that gave little indication of their partisan lean while commissioning articles at the request of conservative operatives.

Although it went farther than similar sites in hiding its purpose and getting paid directly for stories, the liberal Maine Beacon and conservative Maine Examiner, have been more influential in state politics. The former is part of a big-money liberal network while both get significantly more shares on social media and more citations with direct links to partisan groups here.

More than $105 million has been spent on advertising across TV, radio, digital and mail in Maine’s closely watched U.S. Senate race. The race, which will use ranked-choice voting, features Gideon and Collins as well as independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn.

Maine Business Daily, which popped up in 2018, has published a handful of negative articles about Gideon — including several that quoted Collins’ staff without citing a response from the Democrat’s campaign — along with a mixture of press releases and wire stories. But the site’s reach is unclear, since its Facebook page shares a stream of articles but has no likes.

The Beacon has a significantly larger online presence, with a full-time editor and three reporters. It is operated by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, a nonprofit that reported a budget of $2.6 million in 2018. About a quarter of that came from the Hopewell Fund and the Sixteen Thirty Fund, two dark-money groups that fund similar organizations nationally.

The site serves many purposes. Since the start of October, the site has produced nine articles about Collins, an average of three per week, often tying her to right-wing figures. A September article, for instance, highlighted comments from Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, applauding Collins for her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The Beacon also reports on other Maine political figures and policy issues such as racism, sometimes breaking news picked up by mainstream outlets.

Much of Beacon’s work gains traction on Facebook, where the site has about 4,600 followers. A piece highlighting Collins’ comments about the Affordable Care Act was shared more than 5,700 times last week, according to a spokesperson, including by Gideon’s official Facebook page. Since mid-2018, the Maine People’s Alliance has also spent $43,000 promoting the site’s articles on Facebook, according to the site’s data, though much of that was not Collins-related.

Ads citing the Beacon’s work include several from the Senate Majority PAC and its dark-money affiliate, Majority Forward, including one attacking Collins over the price of insulin. Collins, whose campaign has fervently criticized the progressive news outlet and seldom speaks with it, notes she has supported some legislation to lower the price of insulin.

On the other side, the Maine Examiner, which has about 6,000 followers on Facebook, has published several articles opposing Gideon in the past few months, though it does not publish as frequently as the Beacon. The site, launched anonymously in 2017, has been led from the beginning by Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party.

A 2019 article from Savage’s site is the source for several ads hitting Gideon over a carbon tax bill she supported in the Legislature, which the Democrat has said she no longer supports. The site is also referenced by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, including a website outlining Republican attacks on the House speaker and in a recent ad alleging Gideon supports defunding the police. Gideon has said she does not support the movement to defund the police.

Partisan news organizations exist at the national level too, although few have deeply or regularly covered Maine’s U.S. Senate race. The American Ledger, which has written negative articles about Collins, is paid for by American Bridge 21st Century, a super PAC that has run ads against her. At least one article on the site echoes claims made in an ad that targeted Collins’ overly largely bipartisan actions.