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Fact checking Maine political ads leading up to Election Day

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Rebecca Conley
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Maine Public
Gubernatorial candidates Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, former Gov. Paul LePage, and Independent Sam Hunkler at a debate hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine.
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The Maine race for governor has unleashed a torrent of television and digital ads, many containing dubious claims, omissions of context, or outright falsehoods.

Fact checking these messages is a cumbersome, time-consuming task, but here’s our best shot.

With less than a month until Election Day, here are several recent ads that might grab voters’ attention, but that need some additional facts or a dose of reality.

The mythical 40-cent gas tax increase 

Whether it’s the governor’s race or legislative contests, Republican activists are having a field day with a 2019 bill sponsored by a host of Democratic state lawmakers that would have taxed carbon emissions.

That proposal is as dead as the plant and animal remains from which fossil fuels are derived. Its predictable demise was partially because GOP legislators quickly rallied against it, claiming that it would have jacked up consumer prices for gas and heating oil. It didn’t even get a vote in the Maine House or Senate, in part because Democratic leaders recognized the electoral peril that such a law would yield for their members, and also because Democratic Gov. Janet Mills indicated that she opposed it.

But a new ad from a group calling itself Maine Families First would have voters believe that “Mills’ agenda” supports raising the gas tax by 40 cents and that the hike has already happened or is imminent upon her reelection.

Neither is true.

By making the 40-cent increase seem like a looming but preventable reality, Maine Families First is pushing the boundaries of a common Maine Republican Party attack this election against Democrats. The Maine GOP has framed the bill as something the Democrats who sponsored it tried to do and might attempt again. That’s different from saying it’s going to happen, or already did, which MFF suggests in its ad.

But pushing boundaries is the norm for Maine Families First in its electioneering efforts in Maine. The group is actually a front for the American Principles Project, a national conservative group that this summer impersonated the name of the state’s largest newspaper to push and test anti-LGBTQ messaging. It also used text messages to direct voters to an ad claiming that Mills is forcing schoolkids to read the book “Gender Queer.” (She isn’t.)

It’s unclear if APP has determined that those LGBTQ attacks aren’t working here, hence its pivot to “pocketbook” issues. Either way, the group has plenty of money to spend. According to campaign finance reports, the false gas tax ad is part of a $1 million expenditure on digital and television ads. The only donor disclosed so far is Tom Klingenstein, chairman of the Claremont Institute, a think tank considered the epicenter for the modern conservative movement.

LePage ‘cut’ a Social Security program

Not quite.

Channeling the well-established campaign practice of frightening or angering older voters, a group called Better Maine is claiming that former Republican Gov. Paul LePage tried to cut a Social Security program “when it was needed most.”

The problem with this claim is Social Security is a federal program and its fate is determined by Congress. Rather than acknowledging this reality, the Better Maine ad obliquely refers to a state initiative in a 2012 spending bill that changed Maine’s biennial budget. It was designed to help people obtain disability benefits through Social Security and alleviate financial pressure on municipally run general assistance programs. Seniors with disabilities had turned to GA programs when their applications for disability benefits in Social Security encountered severe application backlogs.

LePage opposed the initiative and used his line-item veto power to remove its $1.1 million price tag from the budget change bill. The move angered plenty of people, including some Republicans. But he wasn’t cutting a Social Security program. Instead he thwarted a pilot project aimed at alleviating the disability application backlog. That’s admittedly a lot harder to explain in a 30-second ad, but Better Maine, a front group for the Democratic Governors Association, arguably didn’t need to bring up Social Security at all. After all, the ad’s claims that LePage cut and attempted to eliminate the state’s Drugs for the Eldery Program, as well as Meals on Wheels, are correct, albeit not as sensational as cutting “a Social Security program.”

‘Let’s do it’

Ban all abortions. All of them. Even in cases of rape or incest.

That’s what another ad by Better Maine implies LePage might do if he’s elected to a third, nonconsecutive term. In doing so, the ad uses one of the former governor’s myriad interviews on conservative radio — specifically a July 2018 discussion on Portland radio station WGAN — to make the case that he supports outlawing abortion.

“It’s the law of the land,” LePage said during the WGAN interview, referring to the landmark abortion rights decision Roe v. Wade and the U.S. Supreme Court’s potential to overturn it. “If they can make a case for getting rid of it, let’s do it.”

The ad takes LePage’s last sentence and uses it to foreshadow what he might do as governor now that Roe v. Wade is overturned and abortion rights are effectively in the hands of governors and state legislatures.

“‘Let’s do it’ – that’s what Paul LePage said about striking down Roe v. Wade, ending a woman’s right to an abortion,” a woman narrator says. “We shouldn’t be surprised. As governor, LePage supported letting states completely ban abortion with no exemptions for rape and incest.”

This is a tricky ad to assess for accuracy because it effectively uses LePage’s past statements to make a prediction about what he might do to restrict abortion if elected. It also shows that he supported overturning Roe v. Wade, an outcome polls suggest is opposed by a strong majority of voters.

LePage has vehemently denied that he supports banning abortions in the case of rape or incest — and he reiterated his position during last week’s debate hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald. However, the ad claim could also be seen this way: The dismantling of Roe v. Wade, which LePage supported in his WGAN interview, has allowed states to ban all abortions with no exceptions. More than a half-dozen Republican-led states have done exactly that.

In that sense, the ad’s claim could be read as accurate. But does it reflect LePage’s intentions if he’s elected to another term and given a Republican-led legislature? It’s a hypothetical question, but one with real consequences for Maine women. The ad producers understand this.

LePage and his campaign insist that he supports abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, as well as in cases of rape or incest. LePage also claimed during last week’s debate that he would veto any bill that changes Maine’s current abortion-rights law allowing the procedure before fetal viability, a claim that abortion-rights opponents, who consider him an ally, viewed with concern. However, LePage is a longtime opponent of abortion. Before his veto vow in the debate, he gave muddled and seemingly confused answers to specific questions about what restrictions he might pursue. And even his anti-abortion allies are telling supporters that his true intentions weren’t reflected on the debate stage last week.

Asylum seekers are not ‘illegal immigrants’

But an ad from LePage’s campaign wants voters to believe they are and that Gov. Mills is giving them welfare benefits. The same ad also claims, falsely, that Mills is “handing out crack pipes.”

The ad reprises a tack LePage and the Republican Governors Association used in helping him win reelection in 2014.

In this instance, the ad criticizes giving public assistance benefits to “illegal immigrants.” However, the general assistance program the ad targets provides financial assistance for shelter and food to asylum seekers, who are legally present in the U.S. once they request asylum. They remain legally present until immigration authorities evaluate their request to stay in the country – a process that can take years.

Additionally, one of the reasons asylum seekers are allowed to receive general assistance vouchers is because LePage failed to veto a 2015 bill that made them eligible. Dozens of other bills became law the same way when he didn’t meet the constitutional deadline to issue vetoes.

LePage did limit eligibility after the GA bill became law and Mills loosened it in 2019 at the request of officials in Portland when the city was attempting to find food and housing for hundreds of asylum seekers.

The same ad also deploys, again, the falsehood that the Mills administration is “handing out crack pipes.” LePage has repeatedly made the same claim, but it’s inaccurate.

It’s correct that some harm reduction groups are providing pipes to smoke illicit drugs in the hope that people with substance abuse disorder will eventually consider treatment. But to the extent that the practice is occurring, the Biden administration and the harm reduction groups counter that federal funds are not used. Claims to the contrary have been widely debunked and the one LePage keeps using goes even further by suggesting that the Mills administration is partnering with these groups with the specific purpose of distributing crack pipes.

Thelander attacks Pingree’s record 

Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican challenger Ed Thelander squared off on immigration, abortion, education and other issues during the first debate in Maine’s 1st Congressional District race. A link to the debate, which was co-hosted by Maine Public and the Portland Press Herald, is available here.

In one notable moment, Thelander apologized for equating federal fisheries regulators to “rapists” during a rally earlier in the day. (More on that pro-lobstermen’s rally below.)

The pair also had lively exchanges on Ukraine, government spending and climate. But Thelander spoke last and used his closing statement to go after Pingree.

“Chellie Pingree has one of the worst records of showing up to work in DC,” Thelander said. “She is one of the top 20 proxy voters of 435 members of Congress. She does not work when she gets there. She has never passed a bill into law in 14 years.”

He repeated those statements again on Thursday during an appearance on Maine Calling.

The House began allowing members to ask colleagues to cast votes for them (or by proxy) during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the change, members could only vote when present on the House floor.

Although Republicans objected and sued House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the issue, most of them have since used the proxy option and withdrew their names from the lawsuit. Democrats have used the proxy system more often than Republicans, however.

An analysis of votes by Arizona PBS and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University found that Pingree had voted by proxy more than the vast majority of her House colleagues through this past spring. That analysis showed Pingree casting 307 votes by proxy, accounting for nearly 42% of her votes during that period.

Asked for a response to Thelander’s criticisms, Pingree offered the following statement:

"Whether I am in Washington, D.C. or Maine, I’m fully engaged with the work of representing our neighbors at all times, whether attending hearings and meetings, or collaborating closely with my colleagues,” Pingree said. “I have been careful to protect vulnerable family and community members, experienced COVID myself, and like members of both parties, have been grateful for the flexibility to occasionally cast proxy votes.”

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Thelander’s claim that his opponent has “never passed a bill” in Congress requires more context.

A review of bills on Congress.gov shows that Pingree co-sponsored 86 bills that became law but was not the lead sponsor on any of them. But passing stand-alone bills is only one, arguably minor way that members of Congress make progress on issues important to them or their constituents.

Oftentimes, a member is able to fold one of their bills into a larger measure — such as an omnibus budget or spending bill — through the amendment process or combine it with a related bill that eventually becomes law.

For instance, last fall, Pingree worked with senators to insert aspects of bills they sponsored dealing with sexual assault in the military into a defense spending bill. And as chairwoman of several subcommittees on the Appropriations Committee, Pingree is able to add Maine-specific items to budget bills.

Seniority also has benefits in Congress, so longer-serving members or leaders often get top billing. And when members from opposite parties introduce similar bills, whoever is part of the majority usually gets the credit.

“A final law can only have one official sponsor, but it's often written by many hands, including mine,” Pingree said.

Lobster theatrics

Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. Mills are still pretty much marching in locked-step with each other and with the lobster industry as they push back against new gear restrictions or potential closures to the fishery to protect endangered whales.

But Republicans are still portraying Mills as failing the industry, despite her work with the delegation and her administration joining lawsuits challenging new potential restrictions from the feds and against conservation groups.

On Wednesday, for instance, the Maine GOP sent out an email saying that “Janet Mills just skipped a nonpartisan noontime rally in Portland in support of the lobster industry!” That rally was organized by conservative radio show host and commentator Ray Richardson, a vocal critic of Mills and promoter of her opponent this November, LePage.

Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills, said she was not aware that any invitations had been extended to Mills for the event. LePage was invited and spoke, as did the two men competing for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat, incumbent Democratic Rep. Jared Golden and former Republican Rep. Bruce Poliqin.

But lobstermen and their supporters booed when Mills’ name came up, so it probably wouldn’t have been the friendliest crowd had Mills been invited and attended.

Emptying the notebook

  • The 2nd District contest between Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, former Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and independent Tiffany Bond is the third most expensive House race in the country, according to Ad Impact. More than $25 million has been spent on advertising so far and all of it is on behalf of, or in opposition to, Golden and Poliquin. Bond is not participating in the spending bonanza, repeatedly describing it as an absurdity and an affront to 2nd District voters struggling to pay their bills.
  • Bond had a similar assessment of her rivals’ participation in the aforementioned rally for Maine lobstermen held in Portland Wednesday. On Twitter, Bond, who was reportedly not invited to the rally, described her rivals as grandstanding instead of working toward a resolution between the industry and regulators. 
  • In-person absentee voting has begun and registered Democrats are taking full advantage of Maine’s no-excuse absentee voting law. According to Secretary of State data posted on Tuesday, registered Democrats have requested nearly 60% of the 85,000 absentee ballots issued to date. Republicans trail significantly at 16%, but the majority of GOP voters have traditionally voted on Election Day instead of early. Independents requested about 20% of absentee ballots so far. Absentee ballots can be requested through the Secretary of State here.

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