October 24, 2012

Out-of-state PAC spending on Maine's US Senate race dwarfs candidates' efforts

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Out-of-state organizations have spent as much as 70 percent more money per voter attempting to influence Maine's U.S. Senate election than the campaigns themselves as cash from national groups pours into a race critical to control of the Senate.

Additionally, outside groups have paid for more than 60 percent of the nearly 10,000 Senate-related television ads that have aired on Maine's major broadcasting networks since the summer.

Those two findings -- based on separate analyses by the Portland Press Herald and an independent ad tracking group -- highlight the dramatic way the political landscape has changed since federal court rulings gave rise to super PACs and unlimited corporate donations.

"Everybody assumed (outside spending) would go up a lot, but I don't think anybody knew on what scale, and it turned out to be very substantial," said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors and analyzes campaign spending.

With less than two weeks to go before voters head to the polls, the campaign spigots appear to have opened all the way in Maine's race to choose a successor to retiring U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. Groups from outside of Maine are behind much of the spending as Republicans and Democrats fight for every seat in the closely divided chamber.

As of Oct. 23, political action committees, super PACs and other outside organizations had spent roughly $5.8 million on the race involving independent Angus King, Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill. Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Republican Senatorial Committee had spent more than $1.3 million to help Summers, while Americans Elect and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent more than $1 million each to support King or oppose Summers.

The candidates, by comparison, had spent slightly more than $3.4 million as of Oct. 17, according to the campaigns and reports to the Federal Election Commission.

Put another way, outside groups spent $7.45 to reach each of Maine's roughly 779,000 registered voters, compared to the $4.37 spent per voter by the campaigns themselves, although that gap probably has shrunk somewhat because of subsequent campaign spending.

While that $5.8 million figure is less than the "independent expenditures" seen in a dozen other Senate races -- with Virginia's $32 million leading the pack as of Tuesday -- the levels of outside spending in Maine become more impressive after considering the size of the target audience.

An analysis by the Press Herald found that, as of mid-week, Maine's Senate race was sixth in the nation in per-voter spending by political action committees, super PACs and politically involved nonprofits.

For instance, Ohio's Senate race has attracted nearly five times as much outside spending as Maine's race -- $25.6 million as of Tuesday -- but the per-voter spending in that state was only $4.57 because of the much larger population. The same is true in such Senate battleground states as Missouri ($3.19 per voter), Connecticut ($4.33) and Florida ($2.10).

The leader among Senate races, by far, was Montana, where outside groups have poured $18 million to reach the state's 491,000 registered voters -- or $36.46 per voter.

David Parker, an associate professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, said the airwaves in Montana's five television media markets already are saturated with ads in the race between incumbent Democratic Sen. John Tester and his Republican challenger, Denny Rehberg. Out of all of those ads, Parker counted just two funded by outside groups that carried a positive message.

By Nov. 6, Montanans may have seen as much as $24 million worth of television advertising alone, Parker said. That doesn't include all of the spending on mailers, radio advertising and the get-out-the-vote efforts, he said. While the ad onslaught is eliciting grumbles and some talk of campaign finance reform, however, Parker suggested the efforts probably were working in one key respect.

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