S. Donald Sussman, the hedge fund manager and philanthropist with extensive ties to Maine, is among a triumvirate of progressive mega-donors who are trying to break the Republican grip on state houses and governors’ offices. And Maine is among the group’s targets.
The group, State Victory Action, has reported $11.4 million in contributions, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Sussman, one of the country’s top progressive donors who played a major role shaping Maine Democratic Party politics before leaving the state in 2015, has given $2.5 million to the group. Hungarian-American investor George Soros and billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action have given $6 million and $3.5 million, respectively.
So far, State Victory Action has given $500,000 to Rebuild Maine, a union-backed organization poised to spend in an effort to shape Maine legislative contests and the four-way race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
In a statement, Lisa Prosienski, who recently became Rebuild Maine’s principal officer, said that the Maine group is proud to receive State Victory Action’s support. She also said that the groups share goals of ensuring fair elections and strengthening Democrats’ power in state legislatures ahead of the 2020 census and congressional redistricting, which is done by legislatures in 34 states, including Maine.
Every ten years, states redraw their congressional and state district lines. Each state determines for itself, usually detailed in the state constitution, who will draw district lines for state legislators and Congress members.
Prosienski also suggested that Rebuild Maine will focus its voter persuasion campaign on Republican efforts to change or repeal recently passed ballot initiatives, which progressive groups have increasingly used to pass laws they’ve been unable to get through the Legislature or by LePage.
“Rebuild Maine is particularly concerned that the will of the voters is not being respected, given that multiple ballot measures are being blocked,” Prosienski said.
Rebuild Maine is also receiving support from union organizations, including the Maine Education Association.
In Maine, the backing by State Victory Action and its deep-pocketed donors could boost Democrats’ efforts to win seats in the Legislature, and also help Attorney General Janet Mills in her bid to become the state’s first woman elected governor.
The gubernatorial race is expected to be tight. A recent poll showed Mills running in a dead heat with Republican Shawn Moody and, once again, two independent candidates are in the mix who could draw votes away from Mills.
But the battle for the Maine Legislature is also expected to be tough. Republicans currently have a one-seat edge in the state Senate, while Democrats have clung to a four-seat advantage in the House.
Liberal and conservative groups, such as the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee, have been increasing their spending to influence contests here since 2010.
A Shift In Focus, Resources
Nationally, such backing by high profile donors could be significant because it signals that progressive donors are focusing their attention on winning seats in state legislatures and governors’ offices, which conservative groups and donors have methodically won over since 2010.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the GOP controls 62 percent of legislative chambers to Democrats’ 28 percent. Eight percent are divided, including the Maine Legislature.
Additionally, Democrats control just 15 governors’ mansions — the fewest since 1922.
During President Obama’s two terms, Democrats lost 970 legislative seats. These losses, combined with those in governors’ offices, allowed conservative-led states to fight implementation of the president’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
Now, with congressional and legislative redistricting battles looming in 2020, progressive groups are focusing on reversing those losses. Doing so may also help Democrats gain seats in Congress after states finish redrawing congressional districts two years from now.
The state-focused effort was discussed last year when the country’s top liberal donors plotted a new strategy during a gathering in California hosted by the Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy liberal donors. The alliance doesn’t contribute to progressive groups and causes, but does make recommendations about where its members should direct their funds.
The IRS disclosures show that State Victory Action is one of those recommended groups.
Sussman, the former owner of the MaineToday newspapers and who was once married to Maine Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, is among the alliance’s members.
Sussman was the single biggest donor in Maine politics over a six-year period. Between 2008 and 2014, he gave roughly $2.1 million to Maine Democrats and more than $3 million to political action committees that supported an array of progressive causes.
He has given tens of millions of dollars to candidates and national groups — nearly $40 million in 2016 alone, according to a tally of disclosed contributions by the Center for Responsive Politics. That total ranked Sussman third in the country for 2016.
Sussman appeared to exit Maine politics shortly after he and Pingree ended their marriage in 2015. While Sussman’s donations to national groups which operate here continued, his publicly disclosed giving to local political organizations largely stopped.
But Sussman’s recent contributions to State Victory Action, and his $2.5 million donation on May 30 to the national group EMILY’s List, could stir speculation about a potential return to the Maine political stage.
His contribution to EMILY’s List was viewed by some as financing a series of digital attack ads against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adam Cote by the front group Maine Women Together.
Maine Women Together
Publicly available data from Facebook show that the ads exclusively targeted women voters, a voting block expected to be energized for 2018 elections.
Cote’s team cried foul, with some suggesting that Sussman, who is on EMILY’s List board of directors, directed the group’s spending against Cote to support Mills.
Similar claims were directed at Sussman in 2014, when the League of Conservation Voters intervened in the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary on behalf of Emily Cain by targeting Troy Jackson, now the minority leader in the state Senate.
Sussman’s advisors have not publicly commented on those claims, but they do say that the wealthy financier is not making a return to Maine, despite the fact that his donations to State Victory Action list a Portland address.
A spokesperson for Sussman said in a statement, “Donald Sussman has been a resident of Florida since 2014 and has not lived in Maine since that time.”
A Maine Public review of voter registration records show Sussman is a registered Democrat in Fort Lauderdale.
Donors Revealed, Spending A Mystery
The contribution by State Victory Action to Rebuild Maine is significant, but the group is poised to spend in other states, too. Just how much it has invested is unclear and complicated by varying state campaign finance laws and disclosure requirements.
The group originally registered as a limited liability corporation in North Carolina, a designation that would have allowed it to keep its donors secret. However, the group also registered as what is known as "527 organization" with the IRS in February. Like political action committees (PAC), the 527 designation allows State Victory Action to receive and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. But unlike PACs, 527 groups disclose political activity to the IRS, not the Federal Elections Commission.
The 527 designation allows State Victory Action to avoid the “dark money” label applied to groups whose donors are rarely, if ever, revealed. However, the designation affords State Victory Action some of the opacity that large-dollar donors often prefer. The IRS filing schedule is less rigorous. Discovering the funding of the organizations that contribute to 527 groups requires additional digging.
Last month, Democracy Alliance spokesperson Elizabeth Bartolomeo told the Associated Press that the Victory Fund is “dedicated to funding efforts in states that will help expand and engage voters about issues they care about and inspire participation in our democracy.”
The Associated Press reported that Bartolomeo didn’t respond to questions about State Victory Fund’s donors.
The IRS reports list donations from State Victory Actions between February and June 30. It has spent $5.4 million so far.
For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of the reporting staff at Maine Public Radio.
Originally published August 24, 2018 2:41 p.m.