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Deceptive tactics mark early start to Maine campaigns

The State House is seen Thursday, May 17, 2012, in Augusta, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
The State House is seen Thursday, May 17, 2012, in Augusta, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: a misappropriated political survey, a flat-out lie, the Electoral Count Vote Act, the same-sex marriage vote, and automatic voter registration.

A national conservative group recently misappropriated the name of the state’s largest news organization in an apparent attempt to lure Maine residents into taking a survey that tested their receptiveness to anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant and anti-race education messages.

Also this week, the Maine Republican Party placed signs in Democratic Senate President Troy Jackson’s district that closely resemble his reelection signage and falsely state that he supports “defunding the police.”

Taken together, the two controversies portend legislative and gubernatorial campaigns that will test voters’ patience, as well as their resilience against deceptive ads and tactics that have garnered early press attention.

Press coverage appeared to be one of the objectives of Terry Schilling. He heads the group American Principles Project, which commissioned the messaging survey that circulated under the guise of “Maine Today & Public Insight,” a name that falsely implies the poll was partially sponsored by Maine Today Media, the largest news organization in the state and owner of the Portland Press Herald.

Schilling told the Press Herald that he didn’t know why that name was used, but he later acknowledged that the group was seeking media coverage to broaden the reach of its messaging.

“We don’t do October surprises,” Schilling said. “We like to go up early. We like to get them into the news cycle. And we like to generate earned media around the ads to get them even more exposure.”

A national conservative group recently misappropriated the name of the state’s largest news organization in an apparent attempt to lure Maine residents into taking a survey that tested their receptiveness to anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant and anti-race education messages.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
A national conservative group recently misappropriated the name of the state’s largest news organization in an apparent attempt to lure Maine residents into taking a survey that tested their receptiveness to anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant and anti-race education messages.

In the parlance of political activists, “earned media” means press coverage. The coverage need not be positive to be useful to a political operation. It certainly wasn’t in the case of the American Principles Project and its messaging poll.

“Misappropriating the name of a news organization in an attempt to legitimize a survey is unacceptable and unethical, and we demand that whoever is behind this cease doing so immediately,” Steve Greenlee, executive editor of the Press Herald, said in a statement for the paper’s report.

The move by American Principles Project, or its campaign vendors, to use “Maine Today” was certain to draw press scrutiny. The newspaper had no choice but to defend its name and clarify that it had no involvement in the survey, which included a short, provocative video called “Janet Mills Sex Changes.”

The group’s maneuver illustrates how increasingly brazen political operations like APP have become as they push a far-right agenda in the hope that its views will become more widely known, and accepted, by the public.

Several of the group’s leaders are associated with the National Organization for Marriage, which has long opposed same-sex marriage, including in Maine. NOM fought hard to hide the identity of financial contributors to its successful 2009 campaign to overturn Maine’s same-sex marriage law.

It lost that battle in 2015 and was ultimately forced to disclose that its biggest funder was Sean Fieler. Fieler, a hedge fund investor who runs Equinox Partners, also happens to be chairman of the American Principles Project.

APP and Schilling see the current debate around LGBTQ rights and inclusion as a ripe opportunity, and as such, they are more vocal about their intentions to recapture ground lost during the past decade.

Around the same time that APP deployed its messaging poll in Maine, Schilling appeared on the War Room podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, a confidant of President Donald Trump who has been working to upend the nation’s political system (He’s currently facing contempt of Congress charges for failing to comply with a subpoena by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol).

Schilling told Bannon that Republican politicians should adopt APP’s anti-LGBTQ narrative or risk losing elections -- and the societal battle overall -- to Democrats.

“If Republicans try to avoid the issue and instead try to talk about adult conversations with balancing the budget and lowering taxes for business owners, we’re going to get killed and we’re not even going to win that many seats,” he said. “But if we go on offense and make the election about what Democrats want to do to the unborn, to our daughters in sports, to our daughters and their privacy and safety, all of that. If we go on offense and expose the Democrats for how extreme they are, we are going to win every election from here to kingdom come.”

Whether Maine voters are receptive to that message is unclear, but the Maine Republican Party this year adopted a platform that loosely aligns with APP messaging, opposing sexually-based material in public education through grade 12, transgender identity and “critical race theory” -- a specific field of collegiate study that conservative activists have broadened to include teaching about the country’s history with race.

The APP survey tested messages related to all of those topics.

“A flat-out lie”

That’s how Jackson described the lawn signs paid for by the Maine GOP that falsely claimed he supports defunding the police, according to the Press Herald.

The Democrat is expected to face a tight race against Republican Rep. Sue Bernard, of Caribou, and he understands the political peril of a defund-the-police label. Most Democrats do.

In 2020, the defund the police slogan grew out of the racial justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It quickly became a liability for Democrats who supported those protests, if not the concept of siphoning funding -- and responsibilities -- from law enforcement. It was repeatedly denounced by South Carolina U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, one of the top leaders in Congress. Clyburn, who is Black, blamed the slogan for costing Democrats seats in 2020 and warned that it could undercut the Black Lives Matter movement.

Since then, Republicans have sought to use it against Democrats with any kind of connection to groups or causes that seek to reform law enforcement.

In Jackson’s case, there were no specific bills that he backed that would have “defunded” police. As Senate President, Jackson has a lot of sway in state budget negotiations and the Department of Public Safety has seen an increase in funding since 2018, the same year Jackson ascended to Senate President. Jackson also voted against the only bill that could have been framed as taking away funding from law enforcement. The bill would have eliminated the Maine Information Analysis Center, a controversial intelligence gathering unit created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The bill died between the House and Senate this year.

Nevertheless, the Maine GOP is claiming that because Jackson and nine other Senate Democrats were endorsed by The States Project, they support defunding the police. The group is affiliated with the Future Now Action, which produced model legislation that studied police funding, and potentially, diverting to other diversionary programs.

While no such proposal surfaced during the legislative session that concluded this spring, it’s expected the nine other Democrats endorsed by The States Project will be targeted by the GOP and aligned interest groups, just as Jackson has been.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Maine Democratic Party in 2020 placed campaign signs in the liberal 1st Congressional District that suggested Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and former President Donald Trump were allied. However, the Maine Republican Party, did the same in the conservative 2nd Congressional District where a Trump-Collins alliance might have benefited the senator’s reelection chances. Collins declined to say during the campaign whether she supported Trump’s reelection.

Electoral Count Vote Act

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins and a bipartisan group of senators say they've reached a deal to overhaul the law that former President Donald Trump attempted to exploit during his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

However, there could be changes to the proposal, or potentially, a competing measure.

Nevertheless, there does appear to be bipartisan agreement that the 135-year-old Electoral Count Act needs an overhaul.

Collins and the bipartisan group say the antiquated law that determines how Congress certifies presidential elections is too ambiguous and ripe for abuse. During a speech from the Senate floor on Thursday, Collins argued that view came into sharp focus on Jan. 6, 2021.

That's when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol after being convinced that former Vice President Mike Pence had the power to throw out electoral votes from swing states.

"The idea any vice president would have the power to unilaterally accept, or reject, or change, or halt the electoral votes is antithetical to our constitution and basic Democratic principles," she said.

Thebill co-authored by Collins makes it clear that the vice president's certification role is purely ministerial. It also significantly increases the threshold for members of Congress to object to a state's election results from one member in the House and Senate to one fifth of both chambers.

And it also appoints state governors as the sole official for certifying a state's slate of electors in the Electoral College by Election Day, so long as it aligns with a state's constitution. If adopted, the provision would eliminate competing slates of electors by state legislators -- another ambiguity exploited by Trump supporters who attempted to send electors who would defy a state's popular vote.

The proposal and a companion bill to strengthen protections for election workers has garnered the support of nine Republicans, one short of the number needed to overcome a potential filibuster in the Senate.

However, Wyoming U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in a statement that another bipartisan proposal to overhaul the Electoral Count Act is in the works.

Both are members of the special House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

“As Greg Jacob, the Vice President’s General Counsel testified, President Trump had no legal basis to pressure the Vice President to reject or refuse to count electoral votes,” Cheney and Lofgrensaid in a joint statement. “The Select Committee has been considering legislative recommendations based on its findings concerning the January 6 attack and will share those soon.”

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has said that the Electoral Vote Count Act needs an overhaul, but he has not yet endorsed the proposal released this week by Collins and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Doing so could convince other Republicans to vote for it.

Other members of Maine's congressional delegation have expressed support for overhauling the Electoral Vote Count Act.

Same-sex marriage vote

Another issue that has received significant attention recently in Congress is same-sex marriage – specifically, whether Congress should codify protections in case the Supreme Court’s conservative majority votes to overturn the landmark 2015 Obergefell decision.

Demonstrators stand in front of a rainbow flag of the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, April 28, 2015 before the Supreme Court was set to hear historic arguments in cases that could make same-sex marriage the law of the land.
Jose Luis Magana
Demonstrators stand in front of a rainbow flag of the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, April 28, 2015 before the Supreme Court was set to hear historic arguments in cases that could make same-sex marriage the law of the land.

All eyes are, once again, on the Senate and whether enough Republicans will support the measure to send it to President Biden’s desk.

Collins has already come out in favor of codification as have three of her GOP colleagues: Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio. Six more will be needed to avoid a filibuster, however.

Collins actually joined two of her Democratic colleagues in introducing a Senate version of the Respect for Marriage Act.

“Maine voters legalized same-sex marriages in our state nearly a decade ago, and since Obergefell, all Americans have had the right to marry the person whom they love,” Collins said in a statement earlier this week. “During my time in the Senate, I have been proud to support legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, from strengthening hate crime prevention laws, to repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ to ensuring workplace equality. This bill is another step to promote equality, prevent discrimination, and protect the rights of all Americans.”

Both of Maine’s House members, Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, voted in support of the bill on Tuesday. Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is a vocal supporter of legalized same-sex marriage.

The measure was viewed by many Democrats as a “messaging” bill to voters ahead of the November elections and as a way to force Republicans to take a position on an issue that appears to have strong, nationwide support. The push comes amid swirling questions about whether conservatives on the Supreme Court will target the Obergefell decision following the justices’ 6-3 vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But 47 Republicans joined all 220 Democrats in the House in voting to pass the bill, buoying hopes of potential passage in the evenly divided Senate.

Automatic voter registration

Earlier this week, the Secretary of State’s Office rolled out a new system aimed at streamlining voter registration and encouraging young people to enter the ballot box.

Bureau of Motor Vehicle branches will now offer automatic voter registration to Maine residents age 16 or older seeking to obtain or renew a driver’s license or ID card.

The new system will ask individuals whether they want to register – or pre-register for 16- and 17-year-olds – or update their voter registration. The gathered information will then be sent electronically to the resident’s town office where the registration will be completed. Those interested in registering will have to provide proof of Maine residency and U.S. citizenship.

The legal voting age is 18 for general or referendum elections but 17-year-old Maine residents can vote in primary elections if they will turn 18 by the general election.

Twenty-one other states also have automatic voter registration.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week political correspondents Steve Mistler and Kevin Miller produced by digital reporter Esta Pratt-Kielley. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.