Maine mailboxes fill up as political fliers go postal

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LEWISTON — One tells us this guy running for office likes pie. And boy is he good at getting a slice. The only trouble is the photo is of a cheesecake.

The other features a field of cows and tells me this candidate has been letting the insurance companies milk money from Maine families.

“In Maine, farmers do the milking,” it states. That metaphor gets recycled for another candidate to indicate he’s milking money from public schools. 

“In Maine, we milk our cows, not our public schools,” it reads. 

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In the next flier the candidate in question is portrayed as a madman driving the wrong way at 80 mph.

And so it goes. And likely so goes our postal workers’ backs as the volume of political mail moving to your mailbox steadily increases.

It may be a banner year for the U.S. Postal Service in Maine, spokesman Tom Rizzo said. 

“This seems to be the heaviest year for political mail, for some time,” Rizzo said. He was still gathering precise numbers Tuesday, but said early indications were that the volume of political mail this year has already had outstripped the volume in the last presidential election cycle in 2008.

The Maine Democratic and Republican party machines are footing the bill for most of this “campaign literature,” according to the most recent state campaign finance documents filed on Oct. 5.

And while the fliers both for and against Maine candidates often tout economic recovery and job creation, both parties are paying gobs of money to political marketing and direct-mail businesses outside Maine.

The Republicans, who brought you the slice of the pie (that is actually cheesecake) mailer, like firms in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, the finance reports.

The Maine Republican Party paid Spectrum Marketing, based in New Hampshire, $141,960 for advertising, printing and direct-mail campaigns. The party paid an additional $37,373 to Rockwood Solutions in Manchester, N.H., and another $71,709 to Red Maverick Media in Harrisburg, Pa.

The Maine Democratic State Committee, which is giving you the milk references, seems to prefer companies in Washington, D.C., and Louisiana, including Ourso Beychok in Baton Rouge and Chi/Donahoe + Cole/Duffey in Washington. State campaign finance reports show Democrats have paid the Louisiana firm more than $107,000 and the D.C. firm more than $163,675.

Colby College political science professor Sandy Maisel said he had not seen the content of the current crop of Maine political mailers.

“However, one good measure of their effectiveness, in my view, is to go to a local post office and see how few of them ever make it out the door,” Maisel wrote in an email message to the Sun Journal. “I just think people do not want to be influenced in that way — and therefore do not pay attention.”

He said television ads are at least reaching those who do not have or use a digital video recorder to skip over them, but with fliers, most are destined for recycling.

Dan Demeritt, a Maine-based political operative with experience working on the campaigns for various candidates including Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said the direct-mail message can be hit or miss.

“Unfortunately, unless these pieces cross a threshold of taste and decency, they seem to have effects on voters, and that’s why campaigns proceed to use them,” Demeritt said. 

But they do have the potential to backfire, he said.

That was the case with a Maine Democratic Party mailer that attacked independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler in 2010.  

That mailer went after Cutler’s business connections and work in China, suggesting he would export Maine jobs to the Asian nation. The campaign featured photos of fortune cookies and suggested voters “Learn Chinese.” The mailer angered a swath of Democratic voters who viewed the attack as xenophobic.

But it is often not only voters and residents who are discouraged and frustrated with attack campaigns — candidates too are often miffed, Demeritt said.

Because the political parties’ political action committees pay for most of the negative mailers as independent expenditures, the candidates can’t legally be involved in coordinating the attacks, and usually have no knowledge of them, Demeritt said.

“A lot of them find it very frustrating,” he said. “I’ve talked with (legislative) members who have been mortified by this kind of stuff and have even taken out their own ads to disassociate themselves from these messages.”

The effectiveness of a mailer usually depends on how well-known the candidate is, Demeritt said. If the candidate is well-known and well-liked in his or her district, the mailers likely will have little effect besides filling up a voter’s recycling bin, he said. “They will look at it and know right away it’s bunk,” he said.

The risk of hiring a company from out of state to do your mail campaign is that it might get it wrong, Demeritt said.

“They don’t know Maine; they don’t know the candidates,” Demeritt said. “So it’s very likely they will miss the message or get the tone wrong.”

That could explain why Republican state Rep. Mike Beaulieu’s recent mailer features a photo of the Portland Head Light lighthouse. Beaulieu’s House District 68 is in Auburn, nearly 40 miles from the iconic landmark.

But because some state Senate seats could be decided by fewer than 100 votes, both parties will likely keep the mailers coming, Demeritt said.

“They are cheap and sloppy a lot of the time,” he said. “But when seats are going to be decided by a handful of votes, they are going to throw it up against the wall and see what sticks.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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