The chairman of the Maine Republican Party is defending a print advertisement that singles out a gay rights' group's involvement in the effort to retain Election Day registration.
GOP Chairman Charlie Webster said the ad, which was circulated by more than 25 community newspapers, was designed to "educate" the public about EqualityMaine, one of the advocacy groups involved in the coalition that wants to retain the state's 38-year-old EDR law. However, members of the coalition say the ad is designed to mobilize opponents of same-sex marriage and marks yet another example of Webster and EDR opponents' attempts to distract voters from the real issue of Question 1.
A "yes" vote on Question 1 would retain the EDR law. A "no" vote would uphold the Legislature's controversial decision last spring to eliminate EDR.
Webster said the ad isn't "gay-bashing." However, he acknowledged several Republican lawmakers had contacted him to complain about the ad and that it cast the party in negative light.
Shenna Bellows, of the Maine ACLU, said the ad appeared to be "scapegoating a particular person or group of people."
"It's just another example of the 'no' side trying to talk about everything under the sun except same-day voter registration," Bellows said. "The reason they don't want to talk about same-day voter registration is because they know most Maine voters support it."
Webster said the ad was part of the Maine GOP's "education efforts" about members of the coalition, which he said, were essentially wings of the Democratic party. He added that the GOP's other campaign materials included attacks against the ACLU of Maine and Donald Sussman, the hedge fund manager who supports Democratic causes and candidates and who has been a major contributor to the EDR coalition.
"We’ve talked about the different left-of-center groups that are supporting this referendum and questioned why they’re doing that," Webster said. "That's all this is."
Jonathan Wayne, with the state's Ethics Commission, said that no group had filed a complaint about the ad. However, he said, his office had received calls about it.
Using the large bold headings "FACT!," the ad lists several items about EqualityMaine.
One item reads, "In the 2010 elections, EqualityMaine (advocacy group for gay/lesbian marriage) donated $141,000 for the election of Democrat candidates to the Maine Legislature."
The ad also asks "Why is this special interest group so interested in repealing Maine election laws?"
The ad does not mention Election Day registration. It also doesn't disclose who paid for it. Webster said none of the Maine GOP's campaign material contained a disclosure line, which according to the state's Ethics Commission, is not required by law.
"It wasn’t some sinister attempt, we just didn’t do it because it wasn’t required," Webster said.
The ad did not run in Maine's daily newspapers. According to campaign finance disclosure, it ran in several smaller weekly newspapers distributed in rural areas, including the St. John Valley Times, the Machias News, the Aroostook Republican and Franklin Journal. The latter is part of the Sun Journal media group.
The Maine GOP's biggest buy, $2,700, was through Turner Publishing. Turner Publishing prints 18 newspapers that are distributed via direct mail, according to the company's website. It's unclear if the ad ran in all of those publications.
Webster said the ad was "micro-targeting." He acknowledged that the EqualityMaine ad did not appear in most urban areas.
"We were trying to cover the whole state on different issues," he said.
Webster said the ad wasn't designed to mobilize voters who oppose same-sex marriage.
"That's not it at all," he said. "The ad talks about paying people."
He added that he had a relative who was gay. "How they live their life is none of my business and I have no problem with them being part of the democratic process. It’s just that people have a right to know whose funding this effort, who is involved in this campaign."
Webster said he was trying to show that groups involved in the coalition only backed Democrats and to counter its claims that the coalition had a groundswell of support.
Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, had a different view. Grant said Webster and the GOP was trying "to rev up their base, they’re trying to gin up their rabid supporters."
"It’s sort of telegraphing that they’re desperate for a message when you stoop to that kind of tactic," Grant said. "It's indicative of their approach to the whole campaign."
The print ad follows a pattern of the no on 1 campaign, which has rarely mentioned EDR by name. A television ad by the group Secure Maine's Ballot was last week criticized for referring to "Maine's ethics law," while the Maine GOP ad claims the yes on 1 coalition wants to repeal "Maine's election laws."
Members of the yes on 1 coalition say their opponents are attempting to confuse voters.
Bellows, with the ACLU of Maine said, "Question 1 is just about same-day voter registration. It’s not a referendum on the ACLU or EqualityMaine, or marriage equality. It’s a referendum on same-day voter registration."
Webster declined to identify which Republican lawmakers who objected to the print ad.
"I had a couple of legislators . . . they were upset about it, too," he said. "They just said they wish I hadn’t done it. They said it could be perceived as . . . inappropriate, that sort of thing."
Harold Clough, the treasurer of the Secure Maine's Ballot PAC, which also supports no on 1, told the blog Dirigo Blue that he found the ad "distasteful and irrelevant."
Despite the criticism that has hovered over Webster's campaign against Question 1, the party chairman said he is confident his side will prevail on Election Day.
"I think we're going to win this," he said.
Recent polls show that Webster and the no on 1 groups are trailing the issue, but not by much.
The campaign will be decided Tuesday at the ballot box. Secretary of State Charlie Summers on the weekend predicted a 35 percent voter turnout. Supporters of EDR are hoping several casino referendums and Question 1 will push the turnout higher.
This story has been corrected to reflect Secretary of State Charlie Summers' projected voter turnout.