Money from outside groups that can spend unlimited amounts on a campaign is pouring into state legislative races much earlier than usual — and at an exponentially higher rate.
Spending by party committees and political action committees, known as independent expenditures, reached $365,979 for all legislative races by Sept. 7, according to 60-day pre-election reports filed with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
By comparison, independent expenditures in state legislative races were $91,166 at the 60-day reporting point in 2016, and only $5,373 in 2014. That is a 6,711 percent increase from 2014 to 2018.
These races can attract large donations by Election Day, but this year marks the earliest that large donations have been directed to the State House races.
Former state party officials say several factors can fuel that shift: An explosive national political environment, a trend of escalating campaign spending, a too-close-to-call governor’s race and the practical consideration of spending ad dollars early to avoid getting drowned out by “media clutter” as Election Day gets closer.
“There’s simply more resources available this year. The interest in politics is up all around,” former Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said.
Maine’s open governor’s race also might be priming the campaign financing pump.
“There is some pent-up demand on the Democratic side,” Grant said. “There’s been eight years of the LePage administration, so a lot of Democratic priorities have not been worked on. … That can be motivating for funders as well.”
FIERCE FOCUS ON MAINE SENATE
Former Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said the flow of money to legislative races was not unusual.
“I’m surprised the numbers aren’t higher yet,” Webster said. “I would not be surprised if Democrats spend $3 million to $4 million just on the Senate this time.”
With enough seats in play to tip the balance of power in the Maine Senate, a handful of races are attracting the most money — $25,000 or more, spent either promoting or opposing the candidates.
Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the state Senate now, but are losing eight incumbents.
Five state Senate races have attracted more than $25,000 in ad spending by outside groups, according to the reports. The biggest chunk of money — almost $45,000 — was spent in Senate District 20, an open seat being vacated by Republican Eric Brakey of Auburn that is being pursued by Eleanor Espling of New Gloucester, a four-term state representative and assistant House minority leader, and Democrat Ned Claxton, a doctor.
Of the total legislative race spending, $316,683, or 87 percent, targets Senate seats. The money is largely spent on consulting, advertising, printing, mailing and canvassing.
Grant said open races or a race where the incumbent is targeted generally may attract early ad spending.
MODEST SPENDING ON HOUSE RACES
Slightly more than half of the Senate race spending is aimed at just five contests — two of them open seats, and three races where both candidates are refusing to accept private financing and are running taxpayer-funded campaigns under the Maine Clean Election Act.
The candidates in these five races include some of the biggest names in the state Legislature: Espling; Shenna Bellows in Senate District 14; and House Majority Leader Erin Herbig of Belfast, now running for the open Senate District 11 seat.
Spending on House races was modest, with Rebuild Maine, which backs Democrats, spending about $1,500 on each of several races, and making a few larger donations between $5,000 and $7,500.
It is unlawful for any candidate to coordinate his or her campaign with the parties and PACs that are spending money on their races.
Spending by candidates’ campaign committees differs from money spent by outside groups, because those groups can solicit unlimited donations from corporations, nonprofits or unions.
Some nonprofit organizations that donate to outside groups do not have to disclose their donors, which has made it virtually impossible to tell who is spending money on the campaigns.
Under Maine’s campaign finance laws, groups that spend for or against a candidate must report expenditures within two calendar days until Oct. 24. After that, groups must file within a day between Oct. 25 and Election Day.