October 17, 2012

Outside political spending nears record level in Maine

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine is following a national trend that shows political parties and outside interest groups are spending more money to influence the makeup of state legislatures.

Here the increase in spending by interest groups working independently from individual candidates is already over $1.3 million and is on pace to surpass the record $1.5 million spent in 2010. Campaign finance experts say that the uptick is due to a number of factors, but most of all, the realization by national organizations that controlling state houses is an important, and relatively inexpensive, way to advance policy agendas.

The potential policy changes are myriad, but may include reduced business regulations, tax breaks funded with a reduction in welfare spending, additional changes to health insurance laws, or changes to employment or land use regulations.

How those agendas unfold in Maine will be determined at the ballot box. Recent analyses by this newspaper show that 22 outside groups are spending big to influence voters' decisions with mailers, television ads and canvassing.

The efforts are currently directed at over a half-dozen state senate races and dozens of house contests that could determine whether Republicans hold their current majority or if Democrats regain full or partial control of the Legislature. Groups have already spent over $778,000 on senate races, a figure that eclipses the $685,000 spent in 2008 on all legislative contests.

The dynamic is different in other states. However, a recent study determined that independent spending -- that is, election spending by groups operating separately from individual candidates -- is on the rise.

The 20-state study by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, showed that independent spending increased by 38 percent between 2006 and 2010. The upward trend could be higher than that if not for uneven, sometimes nonexistent, disclosure laws.

Denise Roth Barber, an analyst with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said she expects the upward trend to continue. Barber said that groups are no longer just focusing on federal races. She said it's relatively easy to impact the outcome of state legislative race.

"The gains of influencing the outcome are pretty high," Roth Barber said. "If you can turn a few seats and gain control of the legislative body, you can have a say in the decision making."

The study showed that outside spending in Maine is modest compared to some other states. However, the increased activity is laying waste to the longheld belief that Maine elections are insulated from outside influences.

So why do groups decide to spend on their own rather than directly donate to ideologically aligned candidates? Roth Barber said there are several reasons. First, many states, including Maine, cap donations to candidates; there are no donation or spending restrictions on outside groups.

Additionally, Roth Barber said, the groups can control the political messaging of their campaigns versus leaving those decisions to candidates.

Outside groups can also go negative. The top five most targeted state senate races have been dominated by attack mailers and television ads. The ads slam everything from a candidate's business dealings, legislative record and video gaming habits.

Meanwhile, the individual candidates have maintained mostly positive campaigns.

Voters may be cool to negative campaigning. More worrisome, perhaps, is the idea 21that groups may be spending on elections to gain policy influence.

Most agree that outside interests wouldn't spend the money if there wasn't a payoff. However, unlike direct donations to candidates, identifying the quid pro quo is difficult because so many different groups fund party committees and the surrogate non-profit organizations the committees use to spend on state races.

The financial backing for Maine party committees and their proxy political action committees can be traced back to national interest groups with a keen interest in crafting of Maine laws and regulations.

Organizations like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, backed national unions and other industries, and the Republican State Leadership Committee, backed by insurance companies, big tobacco and other industries, have both committed big dollars to 2012 legislative races.

The Democratic group has given $500,000 to state-based PACs, while the Republican organization has pumped in over $330,000. Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, said that donors to those groups know their money is going to assist a political party, but there is almost no way to prove that the groups earmark their donations for a specific candidate in a specific race.

"It's not impossible," Malbin said. "But if a large number of people give to the common pot, then the state legislator on the other end doesn't have any particular feeling of gratitude to any particular contributor."

Steve Mistler -- 791-6345

smistler@mainetoday.com

twitter/stevemistler

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