© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Record Spending In Collins-Gideon Senate Race Highlighted In Effort To Overturn Citizens United

Susan Collins
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Nov. 4, 2020, file photo, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, gives a thumbs-up as she addresses supporters just after midnight in Bangor, Maine. Collins won a tough reelection fight in a campaign that featured astonishing levels of spending.

A national group seeking to reduce the influence of money in politics and elections has released a study of the 2020 U.S. Senate race in Maine, a $200 million contest that shattered state spending records.

The group American Promise is hoping that its report will serve as a catalyst to overturn Citizens United, a landmark Supreme Court ruling that unleashed an ever-growing wave of campaign spending.

The 24-page analysis of the Senate race traces the money to some of its known origins, mainly super PACs controlled by then-Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Those PACs went on to spend roughly $40 million on the contest, mainly attacking former Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat, and Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, while also drowning out independent candidates Lisa Savage and Max Linn.

American Promise president Jeff Clements says much of that spending can be traced back to dark money groups that can hide their funding sources, as well as a handful of extremely wealthy donors.

"Much of the super PAC spending was dominated — well over 85 percent — by the wealthiest donors in the country, virtually none of whom actually live in Maine or are from Maine," he says.

Clements says the Maine Senate race is just one example of why his group is continuing to push for a constitutional amendment that would effectively overturn the 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United, a landmark decision that has flooded elections with massive spending on advertising.

While Clements says bipartisan momentum is building to pass such an amendment, he acknowledged that it might encounter resistance from the Democrats and Republicans who have found a way to make the unlimited election spending work in their favor.

"I don't think there's anyone anymore who thinks this is about free speech rather than a corrupt political system. But there will be those who are invested in this big money game who may not love this constitutional amendment," he said. "But we don't see that breaking on partisan lines anymore. I think we're going to see Republicans, Democrats, independents and all Americans realizing that this has to be fixed now."

More than 20 states, including Maine, have passed nonbinding resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United.

If such an amendment were introduced by Congress, it would require two-thirds support in order to send it on to the states for ratification.

Three-quarters of the states — or 38 of them — would then have to approve it.

Clements is hopeful such an amendment will pass in the next few years.