Democratic congressional primary begins to heat up

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Thanks to some mostly innocuous television advertisements from an outside group, things are heating up among the three candidates in the June 12 Democratic congressional primary for Maine’s 2nd District seat.

The commercials, from a nonprofit social welfare group called the Maine Outdoor Alliance, tout the wonders of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and call on viewers to help protect it.

But some see an ulterior motive behind the $300,000 advertising campaign, especially because there does not appear to be much threat to the once-controversial park.

Full of pretty pictures of scenery, the ads also include shots of Democratic congressional candidate Lucas St. Clair, whose family donated the land.

In one commercial, resident Lindsay Downing tells viewers that St. Clair “was able to sit down with the locals and hear their concerns,” and come up with “a plan that worked for everybody” during the time St. Clair led the effort to create the monument.

The group, which incorporated in Augusta on March 30, is allowed to mention a candidate in its issue advertising as long as it does not coordinate its efforts with anyone’s campaign. It is under no legal obligation to tell the public where it got the money to pay for television ads, airing in Portland, Bangor and Presque Isle.

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That might have been the end of it except that last week the Bangor Daily News reported that the one man whose name shows up on an official document as a director of the nonprofit, Nathan Deyesso of Scarborough, was the best man at St. Clair’s 1999 wedding.

The paper also pointed out that the televisions were booked through a firm that has worked in the past with a Democratic operative once hired by St. Clair’s mother, Burt’s Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, to press the federal government to approve the park.

“The source of their money is unknown, their donors are secret, but their intentions are clear,” said state Rep. Jared Golden, who is among the trio of contenders vying for the Democratic nomination to run against U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, the two-term Republican who has represented northern Maine since 2014.

The unknown donors, Golden said, “want to buy this nomination for Lucas St. Clair” and he warned that “as we enter the final month of this election, I expect to see more of this type of money enter this race.”

Moreover, Golden said the St. Clair campaign’s initial response — “we don’t know who’s doing this” — “doesn’t pass the straight-face test.”

St. Clair said Tuesday his campaign “did not become aware of the group or its advertising until after the commercial was on the air. We have not talked to the organization and cannot coordinate with them.”

Deyesso could not be reached Tuesday. The Maine Outdoor Alliance also could not be reached.

St. Clair said there’s no question the ad “supports the national monument and my role in creating it.” He also said “the final outcome” of Katahdin Woods’ future is not settled yet given the GOP’s ongoing review of public lands.

St. Clair said he would “prefer that outside spending stay out of the race completely,” but pointed out that outside groups already are running ads featuring Poliquin. National groups have made clear they intend to spend millions in the district this year to try to influence the November general election outcome.

The other Democrat in the race, Islesboro bookstore owner Craig Olson, said Tuesday that dark money in politics “is like toothpaste — once it’s out of the tube it’s impossible to get it back in and it damages the entire electoral process.”

“Instead of talking about how we move Maine forward, candidates engage in finger-pointing as is happening here,” Olson said. “However, all of this hype does gain media attention which helps raise even more dollars for the opposing camps in a race that should be based upon what the candidate will do in Washington to make sure Maine’s interests are protected and advanced.”

Golden said Democrats will lack credibility in their demand to get money out of politics if unaccountable spending such as the Maine Outdoor Alliance’s ads are not challenged.

He said St. Clair ought to call on the group to disclose its donors. If it will not, Golden said, St. Clair should insist it take down the ads and stop spending on the election.

St. Clair ignored Golden’s suggestions. “We have faith that the voters can sort through all the noise and support the candidate who they believe will best represent them,” St. Clair said.

All three of the Democrats back campaign finance reform that would reverse the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened the door to “dark money” spending by social welfare nonprofits.

Golden said, though, that it is not enough to call for greater transparency.

“I will reject all independent expenditures made on my behalf that are paid for by secretive donors,” he said. “If you aren’t willing to support me publicly by disclosing the source of your money in the light of day, then I don’t want your support.”

“Voters deserve to know who is funding my campaign and who is spending money to influence their vote,” Golden said. He said Democrats should “put your cards on the table, reveal all of your donors, and reject shady outside organizations like the Maine Outdoor Alliance who hide donors from the people of Maine.”

Olson said his campaign is obviously not beholden to big money.

“We need to concentrate on issues, not media buys,” he said. “I’m doing it with two part-time staffers, no consultants, no pollsters, and no corporate money or PAC funding.”

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A screen shot from one of the television advertisements created by the nonprofit Maine Outdoor Alliance to advocate for the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Some say it is also meant to help Democratic congressional candidate Lucas St. Clair’s bid to win a June 12 primary.

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