Maine media attention puts the spotlight on both the presidential as well as the U.S. Senate race this fall. There’s a lot also at stake in the campaigns for 35 seats in the Maine state senate. As in 2010, groups both outside and within Maine are attempting to shape the outcome for chairs in Maine’s most exclusive political club. Over $1.5 million will likely be spent throughout the state, with average spending by prevailing candidates in each race expected to exceed $20,000 not including ads taken out by independent PACs.
Was a time when spending even $5,000 was a lot of money for a senate seat in Augusta. Indeed, in 1962 that sum set a record that stood for nearly a decade. This seemingly lavish outlay was on behalf of Portland Chevron fuel oil dealer Frederick Foley, Jr., then running for four at-large seats in Cumberland County.
Despite outspending his seven opponents for the four positions at stake, Foley lost. His defeat was due in part to the handicap of being a Democrat at a time when Cumberland County went prohibitively Republican. Moreover, straight party voting was then the norm and even a candidate like Foley who had an opportunity to stand out among the crowd still had a challenge when attempting to seek a position as a minority party contender.
Besides Foley’s Democrat status at a time when Maine voters toed the GOP line, a further occasion for Foley’s spending was the more sizeable number of voters in the bigger districts. Foley had to run in a district almost five times larger in population than ones served by senators today. In Foley’s case, this meant running as one of eight countywide senate candidates in Maine’s most urban county.
Advent in 1968 of the single-member district system changed this by reducing the size of each constituency and with it the cost of running. It’s a reason why it took nearly 10-years before Foley’s state senate spending record was broken.
That occurred in the 1972 GOP primary campaign of former House majority leader Harrison Richardson in a suburban district north of Portland. Richardson, whose spearheading the enactment of a state income tax three years earlier branded him as one of the party’s more moderate leaders, bested two opponents including conservative incumbent Robert E. Moore. His spending of over $8,000 became the new record.
Richardson’s record did not stand long. During the rest of the 1970s and through the 1980s campaign spending for a state senate seat often exceeded the $10-thousand mark.
First to break the $100,000 barrier was Alton “Chuck” Cianchette’s 1992 campaign in the Hampden-Newport senate district just west of Bangor. Cianchettte called upon much of the $133,000 he spent there to win a closely contested Democratic primary over labor activist Ave-Maria Dover. As a conservative Democrat, Cianchette was able to easily outdistance his GOP opponent in the fall election. (The third-highest state legislative spender that year was a 37-year old rookie Democrat from North Haven, Chellie Pingree. Her $57,000 successful campaign in a GOP district proved that even before her association with Donald Sussman she had something of a midas fundraising touch.)
The candidate perhaps most able to personally afford to ascend to dizzying financial heights that year spent a mere $7,000. That was the amount department store owner Mickey Marden invested in his successful run for the senate in the Skowhegan-Winslow district in 1992. It would be the multi-millionaire’s only foray into partisan public office.
The Cianchette record stood until 2000. That was when Bangor Republican Tom Sawyer’s campaign spent $153,000 in defeating Democrat Jane Saxl. “Why would anyone invest $150,000 for a job paying only $9,000 a year?” Sawyer asked.
“If one seeks public office merely as a job, then I suppose such a naïve question does make sense,” Sawyer wrote in a letter defending the magnitude of his pricey crusade.
Sawyer, who made his fortune in the trash hauling and landfill business, said, “If one seeks public office to improve his or her neighbors’ lives and have a say in spending millions of dollars in taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars the answer is entirely different and totally logical.”
The current record is held by Ellsworth Republican John Linnehan. Despite spending $222,000 in 2004 he lost to Democratic incumbent Dennis Damon by a two-to-one margin. That he out-financed Damon by 8-to-1 illustrates a familiar maxim that there’s a ceiling on what money can accomplish. An automotive dealer, Linnehan termed the “best value of the campaign” was the $50,000 he spent on a 20-minute DVD profile. Distributed to 21,000 households in the district, the DVD showcased Linnehan’s advocacy of a government spending cap and deregulation of the health insurance industry.
The amount on individual campaign finance reports do not today usually factor in independent expenditures made to either promote or defeat a candidate made by PAC’s, unions and other independently financed organizations.
The current wave of individuals and groups outside the state trying to influence Maine elections has some precedent. In 1952, an aide to Gov. Payne approached billionaire Howard Hughes to request $50,000 for Payne’s U.S. senate run against incumbent conservative Owen Brewster, a Hughes nemesis. According to a revelation disclosed years later by syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, Hughes secretly funneled “a sizable chunk” of the $50,000 requested against Brewster, himself a self-financed millionaire candidate. Hughes’s efforts helped bring about Brewster’s downfall in a GOP primary Brewster lost to Payne.
In the 1950s and 1960s New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was an occasional benefactor to the GOP organization in Maine. On the Democratic side, campaigns were sometimes sprinkled with Kennedy family support. As with today’s independent PACs the source and magnitude of funding for many candidates then also eluded close scrutiny.
Whatever the outcome of this year’s Maine senate races, the lessons of past ones illustrate the mixed message on whether spending alone can determine the outcome, even though as in an earlier era, the source of it is at times invisible.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org