Friday night’s debate in Portland brought Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon and Sen. Susan Collins together for the first time in the campaign. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

More than $3 million went to a Virginia firm that provides emails or other contacts for potential donors.

An Oregon company that surveys voters received nearly $300,000, while a New York polling firm received another $100,000.

Between spring 2019 and early summer 2020, the campaigns of Sen. Susan Collins and challenger Sara Gideon paid more than $2.3 million to fundraising consultants and service providers in a dozen states – from California to Massachusetts, Texas to Minnesota – but none in Maine.

Yet the biggest expense, by far, in the hotly contested U.S. Senate race won’t surprise anyone who has tried to watch TV or logged into Facebook in recent months. Even before Independence Day, the Gideon and Collins campaigns had already paid more than $14 million to out-of-state companies that buy television airtime or digital space for political ads.

The realm of big-money politics may have officially arrived in Maine, but not much of that cash is staying here. Campaign finance experts say that trend is part of a “nationalization” of both political fundraising and spending even in smaller, rural states as the parties and big-money interest groups battle for swing congressional seats in a hyper-polarized environment.

As of June 30, the Collins and Gideon campaigns had spent just 8 percent of their cash flow – roughly $2.4 million out of $30,900,000 – in Maine, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

To be fair, a healthy chunk of money eventually flowed back to network television affiliates in Maine that are airing the seemingly nonstop ads aimed at lifting up or tearing down the two candidates. Yet the deluge of money from Maine to out-of-state professionals that help run political campaigns – coupled with the fact that both campaigns are relying largely on non-Mainers to fill their coffers – is just part of the reality of politics today.

“Politics is nationalized right now in a way that it wasn’t even a decade ago,” said Daniel Weiner, deputy director of the Election Reform Program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. “So you have a figure like Senator Collins who used to be re-elected pretty easily, but the level of polarization and rancor right now is huge, … and without casting judgment on whose fault that is, that is just the world we live in now.”

U.S. Senate candidates from left, Lisa Savage, Max Linn, House Speaker Sara Gideon and Sen. Susan Collins moments before beginning their debate Friday at the Holiday Inn By The Bay. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

MAINE’S MOST EXPENSIVE RACE EVER

Even before the summer began, the high-profile competition between Collins and Gideon was already the most expensive political race in Maine history, by far.

By June 30, which is the last date for which federal campaign finance reports are available, Gideon had raised more than $24 million and spent nearly $19 million of that sum. Collins, who faces the most challenging re-election campaign of her 24-year Senate career, reported raising nearly $17 million and spending about $12 million.

Outside organizations such as political action committees, super PACs and party committees had spent another $33 million on Maine’s Senate race through earlier this month, according to tracking by the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group.

All told, the two campaigns and outside groups have reported spending more than $63 million. And that figure doesn’t include any of money spent by Collins’ and Gideon’s operations since July 1 and that will be shelled out by the campaigns or big-money outside groups by Election Day on Nov. 3.

That $63 million figure is already more than double the total spent during what is now the second most-costly congressional race in Maine history: the 2018 match-up between Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin and Democratic challenger Jared Golden. Golden defeated Poliquin following a ranked-choice retabulation of the votes and is now seeking a second term in Congress.

Sara Gideon supporters line Spring Street cheering for their candidate before the debate Friday at the Holiday Inn By The Bay. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The flood of money also underscores the enormous challenges faced by candidates in Maine and nationwide who, unlike Gideon and Collins, do not have the official backing of a national party or who intentionally run lower-budget campaigns rather than participate in a system they view as corrosive to democracy.

Independent candidate Lisa Savage, who is one of two independents on the ballot in Maine’s Senate race, reported raising roughly $92,000 as of June 30. A teacher who is registered as a Green Independent, Savage is the most progressive candidate in the ranked-choice race – supporting Medicare for All and a Green New Deal – and said during a debate on Friday night that corporations and “corporate government” profit from the current system.

“I actually think that getting money out of politics is fairly simple,” Savage said. “The candidates can just do what I have done: Don’t accept corporate donations. Don’t accept money from corporate lobbyists, corporate PACs and the PACs that launder corporate money so that candidates can claim they are not taking it while taking it.”

The second independent, Max Linn of Bar Harbor, had not reported any fundraising activity as of June 30. During Friday’s debate, he repeatedly ignored moderators’ questions and, instead, chose to discuss issues he wanted to highlight because he was “competing against $100 million” in the race.

MASSIVE ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN

It’s no surprise that much of that money from the campaigns as well as from outside groups is fueling a massive – and incredibly negative – advertising campaign on television, radio and social media or other digital platforms.

Sen. Susan Collins supporters cheer on their candidate outside of the Holiday Inn By the Bay before the debate Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Between July 15 (the day after Gideon’s primary win) and Sept. 4, television stations in Maine aired 34,341 advertisements for the Senate race costing the purchasers $21.3 million, according to tracking by the Wesleyan Media Project.

By comparison, just under 31,000 ads total aired in Maine through late October during the hotly contested 2018 race between Poliquin and Golden in the 2nd Congressional District, according to the project, which is a collaborative among professors and researchers at several universities.

The 34,341 ads so far places Maine’s Senate race in seventh place for ad airings and spending nationwide behind races in Montana, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Arizona and Michigan. Nationwide, Wesleyan Media Project said roughly four times as many ads had run in Senate races in recent weeks as during the similar timeframe in 2012 and 2016.

“Certainly, the competitive nature of many Senate races – and the fact that control of the Senate is up for grabs this year – has made it easy for campaigns to raise money for Senate advertising,” Michael Franz, a Bowdoin College professor and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, said in a statement.

Through June 30, Collins and Gideon had spent more than $14 million on advertising and other media buys. Advertising purchases by such outside groups as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC, the conservative 1820 PAC and the Senate Leadership Fund have more than eclipsed that sum, with much of it going to negative advertising.

“We are seeing negativity rates that are extremely high (nationally) this time around and no more so than in the Maine Senate race,” Franz said in an interview. “There is a lot at stake, so the campaigns have been particularly vicious, … and outside groups tend to only do negative advertising.”

U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon talks with Central Maine Healthcare President and CEO Jeff Brickman at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston on Aug. 25. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In an interview last month with Forbes magazine, Steve Passwaiter, of the advertising and media analytics firm Kantar CMAG, estimated that $7 billion will be spent on political advertising this election.

“Even Maine, fueled by the Senate race between Collins and Gideon, is approaching $100 million for the general election,” Passwaiter told the publication. “Amazing numbers considering there are only 828,000 registered voters in that state.”

Weiner, with NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, agreed that the 2020 election cycle is on track to be the most expensive in American history, a fact that he attributes in part to polarization and the intensity of our political fights.

“I think it is particularly palpable in a small state like Maine where control over a critical Senate seat is at stake and it is a fairly cheap media market,” Weiner said. “You get a lot of bang for your buck there so people just flood the market … thinking, ‘I’m going to get a lot more mileage for my millions in Maine than I am in a more populous state.”

HEAVILY RELIANT ON NON-MAINERS

Gideon’s $24 million fundraising haul through the end of June placed her seventh among all Senate candidates nationwide, while Collins ranked 13th nationally.

Sen. Susan Collins greets Shaw Sprague, senior director of government relations for the National Trust, Sept. 4 during a visit in Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Reports filed with the FEC show that both candidates are heavily reliant on non-Mainers for donations, reflecting both the national attention to Maine’s Senate race but also the relatively small donor pool in a rural state that is not particularly wealthy.

The campaigns are not required to report the names and addresses of donors who give less than $200 during an election cycle. Those small-dollar or “unitemized” donations account for 38 percent of contributions to Gideon’s campaign and 14 percent to the Collins campaign.

Looking at contributions from donors who have given at least $200, however, shows that contributions from Mainers made up 10 percent of the “itemized” donations to Collins and 14 percent of itemized donations to Gideon.

Both candidates received the largest sum of donations from California, which is the country’s most populous state. For Gideon, the biggest sources of contributions after California and Maine were New York and Massachusetts. Floridians donated slightly more to Collins than Mainers followed by residents of Texas and Virginia.

And yet both campaigns have criticized the other for fundraisers held in other states, accusing each other of cozying up to wealthy corporate executives rather than regular Mainers.

Both Collins and Gideon said during Friday night’s debate that they support taking steps to lessen the influence of money in politics, although they differ on how.

Gideon said she would support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited political spending by corporations, labor unions and other interest groups. Collins, meanwhile, said “there should be no ‘dark money’ and there should be complete disclosure” but would not support overturning the Citizens United decision because it would not eliminate “dark money.”

Weiner said candidates’ reliance on donations from other states “is a very common phenomenon outside of the big-money centers like New York or California” because candidates just can’t raise enough money from local donors. But with so much money fueling so many attack ads, Weiner believes there is (or should be) a growing appetite among voters and fundraising-weary candidates themselves for major election reforms.

He pointed to Maine’s public campaign financing system for state legislative candidates as one potential reform example. Also known as Maine’s Clean Elections program, the system provides taxpayer-backed funds to legislative candidate who, in turn, agree not to accept or solicit donations from others.

Other states, including Connecticut and Arizona, have similar public campaign financing systems in place at the state, local or city levels. But it would take congressional action to put such a system in place at the federal level or to undo the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

“Both parties are going to have to address this alienation on the part of voters, and how they do that is up in the air right now,” Weiner said.

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