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New Group Uses Exploited Advocacy Rules To 'Educate' Mainers About Sen. Collins

Alex Brandon
AP Images
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives for the Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2019 in Washington.

Democrats at the national level and in Maine are using a multipronged strategy to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in 2020. The plan includes the creation of a new nonprofit group that can shield its donors and operate in a legal gray area that has been increasingly exploited by political organizations in recent elections.

That new group, Maine Momentum, is a nonprofit “social welfare” organization that this week launched what it is calling The 16 Counties Coalition. Organizers say the Coalition is effectively an education campaign designed to hold Collins accountable for voting for the 2017 GOP tax cut, which also repealed a mandate in the Affordable Care Act that most Americans buy health insurance.

The group and the campaign are run by Willy Ritch, a former spokesperson for Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and Chris Glynn, a former spokesperson for the Maine Democratic Party who recently worked for Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Gideon, who is from Freeport, is one of three Democrats challenging Collins next year. She also appears to be the preferred candidate of national Democrats, whose allies, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, almost immediately endorsed her after she announced her candidacy last week.

The show of force for Gideon has irked Collins’s other Democratic challengers, Augusta lobbyist Betsy Sweet, who finished third in last year’s gubernatorial primary, and Bre Kidman, an attorney from Saco.

The attempt to consolidate financial and organizational support behind Gideon also signals that national Democrats will spare no expense to topple Collins, the only Republican member of Congress from New England.

That effort will be bolstered by Maine Momentum and 16 Counties, which have promised a “vigorous, sustained campaign” over the next year. Glynn and Ritch say the group is formed as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit with the I.R.S.

Ritch told Maine Public that the group will focus on “education and accountability” and that “we’re not going to tell anybody who they should or shouldn’t vote for. We’ll leave that fight to other people.”

The group’s nonprofit designation means it is legally barred from publicly endorsing or overtly supporting or opposing a political candidate.

However, organizations with the same restrictions have successfully exploited imprecise legal definitions of advocacy and outright candidate endorsement or opposition. Those nebulous definitions, combined with lax enforcement of limits on political activity by the IRS, have resulted in an explosion of nonprofit group spending in recent elections. Such groups spent less than $5.2 million during federal contests in 2006, but ballooned to over $300 million in the 2012 election and $147 million during last year’s midterms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The spike in nonprofit spending originally led liberal groups and politicians to decry conservatives’ use of “dark money,” a term referring to the groups’ ability to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections while not having to disclose donors.

But liberal groups have increasingly utilized the same strategy, using social welfare groups to spend $85 million during the 2018 cycle.

Among the most prolific spenders last year was the Sixteen Thirty Fund, an obscure nonprofit operated by Eric Kessler, a former staffer in the Clinton administration, and other current and former Democratic Party operatives. Over the past several years the Sixteen Thirty Fund has become the umbrella group for a liberal secret-money networkthat has provided funding to state-level grassroots organizations operating across the country, including in Maine. The group also played a key role in the 2018 midterm elections that saw Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

According to 2017 filings with the IRS, Sixteen Thirty Fund provided direct funding to the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive activist group, and $800,000 to Mainers for Health Care, a group supporting Question 2, the 2017 Medicaid expansion ballot initiative.

Sixteen Thirty Fund also helped setup Mainers Against Health Care Cuts, a group that targeted former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican, for his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the GOP tax cut bill.

Those Maine-based activities and group’s role in the 2018 midterm elections raise questions about whether Momentum Maine and the 16 Counties Coalition are also part of Sixty Thirty Fund network.

Ritch, director of Momentum Maine and the 16 Counties Coalition, declined to comment on his group’s funding sources. But on Tuesday Ritch’s group partnered with the organization Tax March during an event in Portland designed to highlight the unpopularity of the 2017 GOP tax cut — and Collins’s support for it.

Ritch emceed the event, which featured speakers critical of Collins.

According to IRS filings, the nonprofit Tax March is a trade name for the Sixteen Thirty Fund, as is Demand Justice, a group that has targeted Collins withdigital adshammering her vote for U.S. Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh last year.

When asked before the Tax March event if the Sixteen Thirty Fund was a financial supporter of 16 Counties Coalition, Ritch did not answer directly, saying only that his group was affiliated with Momentum Maine, an organization that has yet to appear in an online database with the state bureau of corporations.

In response to follow up questions, Ritch provided a written statement that did not directly address whether his group will be part of the Sixteen Thirty Fund network, or receive financial backing, and instead stressed its Maine ties.

“The 16 Counties Coalition is a totally Maine-based effort,” Ritch said. “We work with a Maine-based non-profit organization run by a board of directors and staff made up of Mainers. Most importantly, we launched the 16 Counties Coalition with an Advisory Committee made up of people from each of Maine’s 16 counties with the goal of lifting up the voices of average Mainers from every corner of our state.”

Sixteen Thirty Fund has provided financial and organizational support to similar local groups all across the country, a tactic often associated with the organizations sponsored by wealthy conservative activists Charles and David Koch.

Collins has not officially announced her re-election bid. But Kevin Kelley, a campaign spokesperson, said in a statement, “It is interesting to see the same people who talk about the evils of ‘dark money’ hide behind it when it serves their own partisan purposes.”

It is unclear if similarly opaque conservative groups will respond on Collins’s behalf. But national observers are projecting that the race to unseat Collins next year will be among the most competitive and expensive in the country.

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