LEWISTON — Despite spending record amounts to attack candidates they opposed, political action committee spending on state legislative races in 2014 seemed to have little success in swaying voters, based on the outcomes of Tuesday’s election.

According to state campaign finance records, independent expenditures, money spent by political action committees, out of the control of candidates and their campaigns, skyrocketed from $3.5 million in 2012 to more than $14 million in 2014.

And while many of those advertisements were negative in tone and meant to tear down a candidate’s credibility or trustworthiness, Maine voters seemed to largely reject those messages.

In some races, candidates who saw the withering criticism leveled against them actually outpaced their opponents in the final tally or maintained near-even voting results.

Among those spending the most on attacks were the Maine Democratic Party along with several political action committees that formed to support Democratic candidates and oppose Republicans.

And while both of Maine’s top political parties deployed negative attack ads, Democrats far outpaced their Republican opponents, in some cases spending twice as much on negative attacks as they did on supporting their own candidates.


The result was not what they had hoped for: Republicans recaptured the majority in the state Senate, filling 20 seats to the Democrats’ 15. They won seats away from long-serving incumbents and picked up 10 new seats from Democrats in the State House, drawing the Democratic majority down to 79 seats; Republicans hold 68 seats and independents four.

“The Democrats have been talking about a highly negative message,” Maine Republican Party Chairman Rick Bennett said. “They have been talking about what they don’t want, rather than what they want to bring to Maine, and they vastly outspent Republicans to do this.”

Bennett said he thinks the negativity of the PAC attacks turned voters away from Democrats and toward Republicans.

“It just shows that Maine voters see through all that,” Bennett said. “They are focused on the issues; they are focused on results. You can bludgeon them with lots of money and lots of negativity, but Maine people see through all that.”

Bennett said the political communications distributed by the Democrats didn’t treat voters with the respect they deserved, and it angered them.

“They didn’t treat people like thinking people, like you would treat your boss,” Bennett said. “We made an argument to the boss, to the people of Maine, and said, ‘Here’s what we want to do and why,’ and they looked at the alternative and said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to go with you guys.'”


Independent expenditures for Lewiston’s state Senate District 21 totaled nearly $200,000 with $91,000 being spent in opposition to Republican candidate Patti Gagne. Much of the spending was on radio advertising that criticized Gagne for having a nice smile but little legislative experience. 

Democrat Nathan Libby won the race but by only 64 votes, close enough for the Republican Party to request a recount.

Gagne said Wednesday she believes in the case of her race the negative advertising worked. Both Gagne and Libby were outspoken in their criticism of the PACs that were advertising on their behalf but because campaign finance law in Maine doesn’t allow a candidate to “coordinate” with a PAC, they have little power to stop the ads.

Other state Senate races in Maine saw even more opposition spending with far fewer results. In southern Maine’s Senate District 30, PACs backed by Democrats spent $120,000 opposing Republican Amy Volk but only $78,000 to support incumbent Democratic state Sen. James Boyle. The result? Volk won the contest.

In the race for Auburn’s state Senate District 20 seat, Maine Democratic State Committee spent nearly $15,000 in opposition to Republican challenger Eric Brakey, while the same PAC spent about $16,000 to support incumbent Democratic state Sen. John Cleveland. The result? Brakey won the race in a near landslide.

Even those who were not the subject of negative PAC attacks said the results of Tuesday show voters were repudiating the negative independent expenditures, and both parties, especially Democrats, should pay attention.


“It backfired,” said Eliot Cutler, an independent candidate for governor who came in a distant third on Tuesday to Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud. “When you ask voters, voters hate it, they just hate it. If I were the Democrats and if I were those organizations today, I would feel ashamed of myself.”

Attempts to reach Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party and the party’s spokeswoman, Rachel Irwin, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville and an expert on campaign finance, said independent expenditures are often used to help level the playing field for candidates who are challenging incumbents and are being outspent.

“But generally, they tend to follow the strategy of mostly doing ads against the other candidate,” Corrado said, “which leaves the candidate they support the option of pursuing the positive campaign.”

Corrado said the way it’s structured in Maine and other states allows a candidate an arm’s length from any perception they are being negative. “In some ways, they also diminish the accountability of the candidate,” Corrado said.

He said because of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens United, which opened the floodgates to PAC spending and PAC donations, as long as they are not coordinated with a candidate’s official campaign, it’s likely Maine will see more, not fewer, attacks on candidates. 


Corrado said the parties and PACs likely would not pay much heed to Tuesday’s results and wouldn’t see any direct cause and effect to the negative attacks backfiring.  

He said the impact of negative attacks in Maine are generally limited because local legislative districts are still small enough that voters know more intimately the candidates in the races. That also makes it easier for an attack advertisement to miss its mark and actually undermine the support for a candidate it was meant to help, he said, “either because of the content of the ad or simply because it’s seen as money coming from outside of the district or outside of the state.”

Corrado said broader themes to Tuesday’s election, including a statewide ballot initiative on bear hunting and the governor’s race, may have had more to do in determining voting patterns than any political advertising.

“It’s kind of harder to dictate a state Senate race against that flow, if you are trying to win a district that doesn’t tend to lean one way or the other in the first place,” Corrado said.


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