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Mills and LePage fundraising totals are just a hint of the coming deluge

Janet Mills
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this May 19, 2018 file photo, gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills acknowledges supporters at the Democratic convention in Lewiston, Maine.

In this week’s Pulse: A 2022 gubernatorial race that's expected to shatter state spending records, consumer-owned utility effort falls short – for now, Run Troy Run is officially done, a new bill aimed at campaign spending reporting, and what's coming up next week in the Legislature.

The 2022 gubernatorial race is expected to shatter state spending records, and this week, the two leading contenders provided an early glimpse into just how pricey the contest will be.

However, it’s an incomplete picture, with a looming deluge soon to be unleashed by national groups that can spend unlimited money to influence Maine voters and, potentially, the policy decisions of the eventual winner.

The end-of-year fundraising reports from Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and Republican challenger and former Gov. Paul LePage show both candidates are well ahead of the fundraising pace each set the last time they ran for election. For Mills, that was in 2017-2018, when her campaign spent $3 million in a successful effort to become the first woman elected governor of Maine. For LePage it was in 2013-2014, and his campaign spent just shy of $2 million.

Mills, who has not made an official announcement about her reelection bid but who has indicated that it’s imminent sometime this year, raised $1.6 million last year and is sitting on about $1 million in available cash. LePage trails in fundraising with about $900,000 raised and about half as much cash available as his Democratic rival.

LePage has historically lagged in campaign cash, but he has won every election he has run in. And besides, the Republican Governors Association, a national group with an array of subsidiaries, has historically bolstered LePage’s candidacies with slick ads, including one in 2014 that sought to reframe the governor’s irascible conduct as an asset (tagline: “he’s unique, like Maine.”) and another spot that depicted illegal immigrants lurking in dark, watery places as they prepared to invade the state’s bucolic localities in search of welfare benefits.
The RGA-Maine political committee spent more than $5 million helping LePage get reelected in 2014. The organization has been active here since last year, but it has yet to unleash its airwave bombardment on Mills.

The same goes for the RGA’s counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association. The DGA boosted Mills in 2018 when she won an outright majority in a three-way race. However, its spending here was different and not as easy to track. That’s because the DGA routed much of its financial support through a seemingly unaffiliated political committee, A Better Maine, which spent $4.8 million supporting Mills and hammered her GOP rival, Shawn Moody, with a nearly equivalent amount in ads.

Both RGA and DGA groups spent more than either Mills or LePage in their last respective election bids. And that’s expected to happen again this year.

Paul LePage
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this May 5, 2018, file photo Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage speaks at the Republican Convention, in Augusta, Maine.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the RGA and DGA amassed a combined $46.6 million through the first half of 2021. Those contributions were in preparation for 38 gubernatorial races in the 2021-2022 elections, including 36 this year.

Both groups spent heavily in governors’ contests in Virginia and New Jersey last year. The spending wasn’t exclusively on ads. A subsidiary of the RGA — the group listed five different ones on its 2021 end of year report with the IRS — gave Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin millions of dollars to help him upset Democrat Terry McAuliffe. The RGA and DGA also support state party committees with money and staffing resources.

The groups have also made following the money trail increasingly difficult. The RGA and DGA file finance reports with the IRS, which disclose donors names and amounts. Neither is technically a dark money group, but both can obscure their financing of state races in different ways, mainly through subsidiaries with names like the RGA’s Get Families Back to Work, or pop-up PACs like the DGA’s A Better Maine. Both groups also operate federal PACs, which file reports with the Federal Elections Commission. The FEC reports disclose donor names and amounts, but when taken together with state-level PACs and nondescript subsidiaries, calculating the totality of the RGA and DGA voter influence efforts isn’t easy.

The same is true for the other outside groups that will attempt to steer the outcome of the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Consumer-owned utility effort falls short – for now

Opponents of Central Maine Power’s corridor project were hoping to ride last year’s decisive victory at the ballot box into another big referendum also aimed squarely at the state’s largest utility.

But for now, proponents of a “consumer-owned utility” in Maine will have to maintain that momentum — fueled by longstanding frustrations with CMP — until next year.

The announcement this week that the Our Power coalition is aiming for 2023 rather than the Nov. 2022 ballot is arguably a setback, although not surprising given the tight timeframe to gather the 63,000-plus signatures needed to get on the ballot.

Voter turnout is expected to be high this year, between Maine’s gubernatorial and congressional elections, and the ongoing court battles over the controversial CMP corridor will keep the unpopular company in the news.

But if Our Power organizers were disappointed in missing the 2022 elections, they weren’t saying so publicly this week.

“It’s really been an astonishing, impressive effort,” Rep. Seth Berry, a Bowdoinham Democrat who has spearheaded the consumer-owned utility effort, said during a virtual discussion on “democratizing” the power grid. Berry noted that the campaign collected 73% of required signatures over 11 weeks at the height of the pandemic.

Pushing the vote to 2023 “gives us a lot of time to educate voters (and) to finish up with the signature collection,” he said.

What Berry and the Our Power coalition want to do is gain voter approval for a plan that would essentially force CMP and Versant Power to sell their assets to a new consumer-owned utility known as the Pine Tree Power Co. It’s an ambitious and complex plan that would overhaul Maine’s electricity landscape. And Maine’s two large for-profit utilities, CMP and Versant, are unsurprisingly not in favor of what they decry as a “government takeover” of the electricity grid.

Mills vetoed a consumer-owned utility bill sponsored by Berry in July, forcing the campaign to focus its efforts on a ballot initiative. But Our Power couldn’t start collecting signatures for their proposed citizen initiative until October.

And while the campaign had tables set up at polling places across the state on Election Day, it was an off-year election with only about 38% voter turnout. And roughly 29% of those voters didn’t “turn out” to the polls, per se, but instead voted by absentee ballot.

Gathering more than 63,000 signatures from registered voters is no easy feat, particularly during winter in the middle of a pandemic. Our Power hired paid petition circulators to help with that effort, but not to a large extent, at least when compared to other recent ballot campaigns.

Of the $232,077 that Our Power reported spending last year, $23,168 went to petition circulators. Just shy of $100,000 was listed as “payroll” for a handful of staffers, according to the group’s filing this week with the Maine Ethics Commission.
An industry-aligned group that is fighting against the consumer-owned utility proposal, meanwhile, reported spending just over $1 million between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 on advertising, “voter outreach services” and other research.

That group, the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition, suggests the additional time will help their side defeat the consumer-owned utility initiative if and when it makes it onto the ballot.

“The longer the debate over government-controlled power takes, the more people learn about it. And the more people learn about it, the less they like it,” said Willy Ritch, a spokesman for the Maine Affordable Energy Coalition.

Done: Run Troy Run

Figuratively speaking, the effort by Portland activists to convince Maine Senate President Troy Jackson to run for governor and confront Mills in a primary was doomed from the get-go.

But despite public and private assurances from Jackson that he wasn’t interested in taking on the governor he sometimes disagrees with, the group forged ahead anyway, raising $20,000 from several union organizations and launching a website that asked people to pledge $5 to the cause — purportedly in the hopes of showing Jackson that he’d have the financial backing to defeat Mills in a primary.

The group, dubbed Run Troy Run, is no more. Its associated PAC has terminated operations, but not before transferring nearly 70% of its contributions to the nonprofit operated by the draft-Jackson effort’s most high-profile cheerleader, Ethan Strimling, the former mayor of Portland.

Strimling was denied a second term as mayor in 2019, finishing third in a four-way race decided by ranked-choice voting, but he has remained active in the city’s politics by aligning himself with the ascendant progressive movement. Swing Hard, Turn Left is the nonprofit that he has used to advance his ambitions there. It’s also the same group that received $13,545 from the now-shuttered Run Troy Run PAC.

Kate Sykes, an officer with the PAC and a board member of Swing Hard, Turn Left, told Maine Public in an email that “there was a lot of grass roots energy, but it's clear that Troy wants to return to the Senate, and so we respect that decision.”
Sykes also said that the four unions that donated to Run Troy Run haven’t decided how best to use the leftover cash, so Strimling’s group has “agreed to hold the funds until a decision is made.”

Dems lose two senators — one immediately

The Democratic caucus that Jackson leads shrank by one member this week while another up-and-coming Democratic senator announced she would not seek reelection in November.

Sen. Louis Luchini of Ellsworth resigned his seat this week in order to join the Office of Advocacy within the U.S. Small Business Administration. Luchini, who has represented parts of Hancock County for more than a decade in the House or Senate, is a well-respected member who chairs the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that oversees everything from elections to gambling.

Sen. Chloe Maxmin of Nobleboro, meanwhile, said she plans to enroll in the University of Maine School of Law rather than seek another term. At just 29 years old, Maxmin has been considered one of the young, rising stars of the Democratic Party in Maine, particularly after she defeated the veteran Republican leader Sen. Dana Dow of Waldoboro last November in a district that includes many rural and conservative communities in the midcoast.

Some Republicans were quick to suggest the two announcements were signs that Democrats were jumping ship ahead of the 2022 elections. While two exits don’t constitute an mass exodus, they will force Democrats to work harder to keep the two seats in the blue column.

Democrats currently have a solid majority in the Maine Senate, holding 22 of the 35 seats. But the Senate has bounced between Democratic and Republican majorities several times over the past decade.

Democratic Rep. Genevieve McDonald of Stonington has already announced her intention to seek Luchini’s in an upcoming special election. The seat has previously been held by Republican Brian Langley, who also challenged Luchini in 2020 but lost.

More candidates? More money.

Maine legislators this week considered a bill that would require the Maine Ethics Commission to review campaign spending reports in Portland city elections. But lawmakers were also asked to consider broadening the bill to include smaller municipalities.

The proposal, sponsored Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, and other members of the city’s legislative delegation, would require candidates for school board, city council and ballot campaigns to report fundraising and spending efforts to the Ethics Commission, which regulates campaign finance in races for the Legislature, governor, district attorney and county government.

Grayson told the State and Local Government Committee this week that the bill was prompted by increased spending in local races and public interest in tracking the spending. The proposal was originally drafted to shift candidate registration and finance reporting to Ethics, but it also prompted the Maine Town & City Clerks' Association to float the idea of expanding the commission's jurisdiction to include all 15 municipalities that are currently required to track spending on local elections.

The clerks' association recognized that the Ethics Commission probably doesn’t have the staff to administer and oversee finance reports for all 15 municipalities, which could add an estimated 150 local candidate filings to the 500 or so the agency already handles.

Patti Dubois, who leads the group’s policy committee, told Maine Public that perhaps amending the proposal to include the state’s three largest cities — Portland, Lewiston and Bangor — might be a good compromise.

However, the public hearing made it clear that Ethics is worried that taking on those cities is more than it can handle. Jonathan Wayne told lawmakers that the proposal would mark a fundamental shift in the commission’s duties and potentially weaken efforts to handle its current workload, not to mention its investigative and adjudicative work on high-profile and sometimes complicated campaign finance regulatory matters.

It’s not yet clear whether Wayne’s testimony will persuade the bill’s supporters to focus exclusively on transferring candidate reporting from the city to Ethics. But Wayne also suggested that the bill attempts to address a problem that city clerks might fix on their own by improving the way campaign finance reports are publicly disclosed.

Wayne also said that shifting the reporting to Ethics will likely require an additional staff member and money for IT upgrades from the Legislature.

Coming up…

Below is a roundup of a few potentially newsworthy or noteworthy items coming up in the next week in the Legislature, Congress or elsewhere in Maine politics:

  • Child welfare: Lawmakers of the Health and Human Services Committee will receive briefings on Tuesday and Thursday on the state’s child welfare services. This is once again a top issue following a spate of abuse-related deaths over the summer in Maine.
  • Forever chemicals: On Monday, the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee will consider two bills dealing with PFAS, which are “forever chemicals” that are popping up around the state.
  • House and Senate floor sessions: The full House and Senate will convene for only the second time this year on Wednesday. All committee meetings are being held virtually and legislative leaders say they are limiting full gatherings amid the latest COVID surge.
  • Hospital update: Meanwhile, representatives of Maine’s overburdened hospitals will provide an update to HHS Committee members at 10 a.m. Friday.
  • Election integrity: The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee is slated to hold a work session on a bill to tighten Maine’s rules surrounding election ballots and voting machines. The bill, LD 1779, is a response to so-called “audits” in some states following the 2020 presidential election.

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