LEWISTON – For the first time in Maine gubernatorial politics, one candidate could control not only his own campaign spending but also the spending of his three biggest competitors.

Gov. John Baldacci is financing his campaign through private contributions. Republican nominee Chandler Woodcock, Green Independent Pat LaMarche and independent Barbara Merrill all qualified for public financing for their campaigns under the Maine Clean Election Act. They each received initial funding of $400,000 for the general election and have the potential to receive as much as $800,000 more in matching dollars for a total of $1.2 million.

Those matching dollars, however, depend on what Baldacci and outside groups do.

If spending by the governor’s campaign or by others on behalf of one of the candidates doesn’t exceed $400,000, then his publicly funded challengers are also capped at that amount.

The conventional wisdom in political campaigns – like business and life – is that more money is better. But given the dynamics of this race, Baldacci might be disinclined to raise money, which is part of the intent of the state’s Clean Election Act.

“One of the purposes of public financing, and one of the reasons it’s so popular with the public, is because of the spending limits,” said Arn Pearson, a campaign finance reform advocate with Common Cause and a defender of Maine’s Clean Election Act. “It takes the arms-race mentality out of the system. It takes the incentive to raise a lot of money away.”

Power of incumbency

As the incumbent, Baldacci has a number of built-in advantages. He has his appointees in the executive branch who can act as de facto surrogates, appearing around the state to talk about the administration’s policies and defend its actions.

And the governor, by nature of his position atop the state’s political and governmental hierarchy, draws news coverage almost everywhere he appears.

And appear he has.

Baldacci has been crisscrossing the state on a ruthless schedule for much of the year. His three-person communications staff sends out a blizzard of news releases every day, including photographs of the governor when he’s in town.

And it’s official, gubernatorial business.

The campaign doesn’t have to pay for it, and it can’t trigger matching money for his best-known opponents.

The other candidates in the race, who also include independents David John Jones, Phillip NaPier and Auburn’s John Michael, must work harder to capture the attention of the media and the public. Their appearances carry a lower profile than a visit from the governor. Therefore, they often have greater difficulty getting in the newspaper or on TV.

Governor vs. candidate

The law isn’t clear or very helpful.

The governor can’t use his office for campaign activities, but the line between official duties and campaigning is sufficiently cloudy so that all incumbents have great latitude in what they can do.

“It’s really difficult to separate these things out,” said Paul Lavin, the assistant director of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, which oversees the enforcement of election law. “There’s no bright line and precious little vague line to go by.”

According to Lavin, there were complaints about the governor’s state Web site because it was launched during an election year.

“When he is doing something that’s a gubernatorial duty, you can squawk all you want, but how are you going to say that it’s solely campaign-related,” Lavin said. “Incumbency has always been a great power.”

And for most of the public – and particularly voters – the distinction might not matter. For the people who see the governor, maybe talk to him and have a picture made, it’s the moment that matters, not whether it was the state or the campaign paying the bill.

Consider Baldacci’s public schedule as governor for late July and early August.

On Aug. 1, Baldacci was at Maine Mutual in Presque Isle to discuss expansion plans, he unveiled the Army National Guard’s 152nd Engineering Support Co. and was at Louisiana Pacific in Houlton when the company announced it would add jobs.

The day before, he tagged the first “certified Maine lobster” in Portland and made headlines around the state. Also that day, he was in Auburn to hand-deliver a $10,000 grant to help the Twin Cities with their regionalization efforts.

On July 28, he cut the ribbon at the Bangor State Fair, and on July 27, he was at a groundbreaking in Wiscasset, made an announcement in Biddeford and attended a spaghetti supper.

Or take Monday, July 24. The governor’s schedule took him to Orono, Bangor and Caribou, followed the next day by a trip to Portland for a Sea Dogs game.

“One of the things that he’s doing is he’s using the powers of incumbency to get earned media,” said Woodcock campaign manager Chris Jackson. “And that’s ultimately money he won’t have to spend.”

Interwoven with his official visits, he’s also on the campaign trail. On Saturday, July 29, he made two stops in Westbrook, two more in Scarborough and perhaps others that weren’t announced.

It’s a relentless schedule.

“He’s got boundless energy,” said Jesse Connolly, Baldacci’s campaign manager. “He never tires. He never takes a day off.”

“From the campaign perspective, he wants to make sure we don’t waste a minute.”

The fundraising challenge

But Baldacci’s ability to control his own fundraising fate is not without costs.

He must also dedicate precious time and staff to raising the cash to feed his large campaign organization.

It’s tough to raise money for a gubernatorial race in Maine.

Contributions are limited to $500 for the general election. To raise $1 million, a candidate has to convince 2,000 people to contribute the maximum and raise almost $7,000 every day between June 14, the day after the primary, and Nov. 6, the day before the election.

Even for a well-connected incumbent with a long political history in the state, raising money can be difficult.

“Fundraising is a full-time effort,” said Connolly. “Everyone works hard on it, from the governor on down to the person processing the checks. It’s an advantage that the Clean Election folks have that they don’t have to go out and raise money.”

For challengers, the prospect of raising significant campaign cash can be overwhelming.

Maine’s three races for Congress illustrate the point.

The challengers have had little success in raising much-needed money for their campaigns despite much higher limits – $2,100 per election – for individual donors.

Jean Hay Bright, a Democrat challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, has managed to raise just $43,000 so far. State Rep. Darlene Curley, R-Scarborough, had raised about $60,000 through June 30 in her challenge of U.S. Rep. Tom Allen in the 1st Congressional District, and Republican Scott D’Amboise managed just $14,000 for his campaign against U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in the 2nd Congressional District.

The incumbents, on the other hand, had no trouble. Snowe reported raising almost $3 million; Allen, $650,000; and Michaud, $547,000.

In a televised debate during the Republican primary in the gubernatorial contest, Woodcock was clear about the challenge of raising money and the importance of the MCEA.

Without public financing, he said, he would not have been able to make his run for governor.

As a former teacher and Maine guide, he said, he didn’t have the personal wealth or rich backers to raise the enormous amount of money necessary to be credible.

“There are benefits and disadvantages to accepting public financing. The downside is that you lose control of when you’re going to get your money,” Common Cause’s Pearson said.

Can doesn’t mean will

Just because Baldacci could cap his opponents war chests at $400,000 doesn’t mean that he will or that it’s a good strategy.

“It’s fair to say that the Baldacci campaign is going to be very targeted in what we raise and spend,” Connolly said, revealing nothing more about his plans.

A review of the most recent campaign disclosure reports shows that while the governor has raised $728,000 so far this year, only about $87,000 was raised after the June 13 primary, which is the amount that counts toward the $400,000 cap.

For their part, Baldacci’s publicly financed opponents say they believe the governor will exceed the cap but they can’t rely upon any additional funding.

“We’re not counting on anything,” said LaMarche. “You should always plan on the least amount.”

Woodcock’s campaign manager, Chris Jackson, agreed: “We’re trying to be very frugal with our money. I’m operating under the assumption that we have $400,000 to run a statewide, gubernatorial campaign. We’re being very careful on how we spend our money,”

Phil Merrill, a longtime Democratic political operative and the husband and assistant treasurer for independent Barbara Merrill, said he thinks Baldacci will probably go beyond the cap.

Asked if he thought the governor was planning a Blaine House strategy that relied heavily on the advantages of incumbency, Phil Merrill said that was likely Baldacci’s original plan.

“But my guess is that won’t be enough,” Phil Merrill said. “He’s going to have to run a campaign that makes all the other candidates unacceptable.”

Phil Merrill cited strong attacks by the state Democratic Party against Merrill and Woodcock as evidence. “What’s happened in the last two weeks shows that Baldacci has given up on what might be called a ‘Blaine House’ strategy.”

If Baldacci does decide to exceed the limit, he can also decide on the timing.

In politics, early money matters more than late money because it allows candidates to build infrastructure and to make more comprehensive plans, including a map of their media buys during the homestretch of the campaign.

“One plausible strategy is that (Baldacci) would do late fundraising,” Pearson said. “That gives the others less time to react.”

As one member of the ethics commission said recently, “It’s not ever going to be a true level playing field as long as you have an incumbent in the picture.”

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