Campaign ad bombardment: 2014 PAC spending set to smash 2010 records

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AUGUSTA — If you’ve been online, turned on your television or checked your mail in the past few months, odds are you’ve been confronted by political advertising in some form or another.

Whether it’s sponsored social media, TV advertisements or direct mail, the campaign season has permeated the daily lives of all but the most detached Mainers. And where it hasn‘t yet, it will soon, as political spending in 2014 races is set to eclipse the records set in 2010.

According to campaign finance reports filed this week, political action committees, also known as PACs, are exceeding the spending and fundraising pace of similar groups four years ago. In 2010, as in this year, a tightly contested governor’s race with three viable contenders was a major impetus for third-party spending.

Here’s a look at what we know about PAC fundraising and spending in Maine this year, and why Joe and Jane Voter should brace for a coming onslaught of advertising in the final stretch of campaign season.

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PACs have raised more money so far than they had at this point in 2010. By the end of September four years ago, political action committees in Maine had raised about $9 million, year-to-date. This time around, they’ve already raked in $12.2 million in the same period.

Spending by outside groups has been on an upward trajectory across the country for some time. Still, some of the increase in Maine will be chalked up to Gov. Paul LePage, with the divisive Republican governor causing a flurry of activity from both sides of the aisle as he fends off challenges from Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler.

The most recent poll shows more Maine voters disapprove of the job LePage has done than approve, and liberal groups are working hard to exploit that divide. For example, PACs such as the union-backed Maine Forward and the national environmentalist group NextGen Climate are working hard to “turn LePage,” and have raised about $1.8 million and $1 million this year, respectively. Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association — the biggest outside player in the governor’s race — has already raised $2.8 million to support the governor’s re-election.

The dead heat between LePage and Michaud, who are separated by a razor-thin margin in the polls, has created an arms race of sorts, making PACs supporting each candidate hesitant to let the other side gain an edge in the money race.

“We’re talking about a really competitive race there in Maine, and any edge helps,” said Pete Quist, research director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Consider the spending activity of all the PACs funneling smaller amounts on the governor’s race or working to tip the scales in a smattering of key contests in the Maine Legislature, and the money adds up quickly.

Spending on independent expenditures has already eclipsed 2010’s total, with a month left to go. One way that PACs support candidates is by spending money independently on their behalf — most visibly in the form of TV or direct mail advertising. These independent expenditures, or “IEs,” allow the PACs to spend directly to support the candidate who aligns best with the issue of concern for the PAC. However, they aren’t allowed to coordinate that spending with the candidate’s campaign.

Last weekend, the RGA dropped $320,000 on TV ads and Maine Forward bought $355,000 worth of airtime. Those large purchases brought the total spent on independent expenditures this year to $6.83 million. In 2010, IEs totaled just $4 million in the entire campaign.

Vic Berardelli is chairman of the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus, a PAC that contributes to libertarian-leaning candidates, but has utilized independent expenditures in the past. He said groups choose the independent route so they can better control the message.

“If the organization has a particular cause or point of view it’s espousing, it basically guarantees that that message gets out, and that it’s tied to the candidate they’re supporting,” he said. A donation to the candidate may not be used to further the donating PAC’s cause, he said, which defeats the purpose.

“You endorse because you figure that candidate will give your cause a better chance in the Legislature,” he said.

Independent expenditures also facilitate negative campaigning. Candidates are often hesitant to “go negative” because attacks can backfire, making the candidate look mean or even desperate. But given their independence from campaigns, PACs face no such concern. If you’ve seen any of the attack ads against LePage or Michaud on TV or in your mailbox, you’ve likely seen an independent expenditure in action.

Brace yourself: The money is only going to flow faster from here to Election Day. As Election Day draws closer, more voters start paying attention. The motivation for PACs and campaigns to spend grows as well, as those groups grow even more interested in putting their message in front of your eyeballs.

Back in 2010, PACs in Maine spent $7.2 million in October, more than twice the $3.2 million they spent in September, on independent expenditures, direct contributions to candidates, staff and other expenses. October’s spending was only $200,000 less than was spent in the entire nine months prior.

There’s no reason to think PACs won’t go similarly gangbusters this year. And with more options available than ever for getting their message to voters — with advertising available through social media and streaming sites like YouTube and Hulu — the effect of PAC spending will be increasingly inescapable.

Get ready.

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