A study of Maine's past three state elections released Friday shows a sharp increase in campaign spending by outside groups since 2006.
The National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan group that partners with the Sunlight Foundation, released a report showing that the total independent spending on campaign ads, mailers and other communications designed to influence elections quadrupled from 2006 to 2010.
In 2006, outside groups spent $1.3 million, compared to $5.3 million in 2010. The two years are comparable because both featured gubernatorial and legislative races.
The study indicated that a competitive gubernatorial race in 2010 factored in the spike. The governor's race accounted for nearly $4 million (74 percent) of the total independent spending.
However, the report also showed a marked increase in the money groups funneled to legislative races, from $629,271 in 2006 to nearly $1.4 million in 2010. A large chunk of that came from a controversial and unprecedented $400,000 ad dump by the Republican State Leadership Committee, which targeted several state Senate races.
Independent campaign expenditures are typically defined as money spent to support or oppose a specific candidate, but which is coordinated separately from the campaigns by political action committees and party committees.
In the past, spending by outside groups was limited in Maine, compared to other states. However, the study indicates a trend toward increased independent expenditures. In 2010, the money raised directly by candidates was more than outside groups by a 3-to-1 ratio. In 2006, the ratio was 9-to-1.
Forty-seven groups attempted to influence the 2010 election; the top five spenders accounted for 63 percent of the total spending. The top five were most interested in the governor's race.
How the groups spent the money provides some insight into the strength of the candidates and the dynamics of the 2010 race.
The national Republican Governors Association topped the list, spending more than $1.2 million. Most money went toward ads or communications supporting Gov. Paul LePage ($534,632). The RGA also spent money to oppose LePage's main challengers, Democrat Libby Mitchell ($360,749) and independent Eliot Cutler ($225,771).
The RGA expenditure was nearly equal to what the LePage campaign raised and spent on its own.
The Maine Democratic Party was second — at $751,535 — on the 2010 spending list.
The party spent most of its money in the governor's race, but only about 12 percent went to directly support Mitchell, the Democratic candidate who eventually finished third in the five-way race. The majority of the party's resources went toward negative ads against Cutler ($219,648) and LePage ($131,093).
The pattern was different for the third-biggest spender, the PAC Maine Women Vote! The Washington, D.C., group spent $580,668 in 2010. A little more than 51 percent of those resources directly supported Mitchell, while 36 percent was used to attack LePage and 13 percent was used against Cutler.
The Maine Republican Party spent $434,726 in 2010. With the RGA doing the heavy lifting in the governor's race, the party was able to focus more resources on the legislative races.
More than 66 percent of its spending went toward winning control of the Legislature, compared to 53 percent spent by the Democratic Party.
The GOP also spent more money supporting LePage ($216,552) than attacking his rivals, Cutler ($57,125) and Mitchell ($13,175).
The Campaign for Maine PAC was fifth on the expenditure list with $432,954. Nearly all of it went toward directly supporting Cutler. The PAC was funded by 186 donors, many of them wealthy enough to kick in four- and five-figure contributions.
LePage drew more than 500 donations. However, the Republican Governors Association PAC that supported the governor had only 52 donations, many in the five- and six-figure range.
Outside groups targeted 114 of the 186 legislative races in 2010. Groups targeted the same number of races in 2008 and 2006, but the spending nearly doubled in 2010.
The $400,000 Republican State Leadership Committee expenditure was a big reason. The group spent nearly $195,000 in the Senate District 15 race between Republican Lois Snowe-Mello and Democrat Deborah Simpson. The RSLC spent more than $87,000 in negative ads against Simpson.
The committee's outlay for attack ads was more than all outside groups spent in the most targeted races in 2008 ($86,386) and 2006 ($70,575).
The report credited Maine's "robust disclosure" of independent spending. However, it also noted that transparency could be improved. Independent spending that doesn't clearly advocate for or against a candidate is reported only if a race contains a Maine Clean Election candidate.
"For full transparency, Maine should require (independent spending) to be reported in all races," the reported noted.
Jonathan Wayne, with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, said the independent disclosure law was changed in about 2002, about the same time the Maine Clean Election Act was implemented.
According to Wayne, prior to the the disclosure change, independent expenditures were not required unless a group expressly advocated for or against a candidate. The law was beefed up after groups crafted campaign literature that evaded the advocacy provision.
The report was funded by grants from the Open Society Foundations, Public Welfare Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Fund.