As Money Flows Into Senate's 'Marquee Race,' Conflicting Claims About Its Effects

Sep 16, 2020

With less than two months left before Election Day, the U.S. Senate race in Maine is already the most expensive in state history. And that’s prompted the four candidates to decry the influence of money in politics while also blaming one another for its impact on one of the most closely watched contests in the country.

But some of the candidates’ statements are confusing or inaccurate.

Campaign spending in the U.S. Senate race has already topped $63 million, a dizzying amount for a state of just over 1 million residents. And each of the candidates had something to say about it during the first debate last Friday in Portland.

“I think we can all agree that there’s too much money in politics,” said Democratic candidate Sara Gideon, who with $24 million raised so far, leads the field in campaign donations.

Trailing is incumbent U.S. Sen. Susan Collins with $17 million.

“There should be no dark money. There should be complete disclosure,” Collins said.

So far, independent candidate Max Linn isn’t benefiting much from either dark money or direct donations, which is why he used the debate to amplify his message while often refusing to answer moderator questions.

“Because I know I have to slay these giants and it’s not going to be easy. So I’m going to have to be outside the box,” Linn said.

Unlike Linn, a former financial planner, independent Lisa Savage is unable to self-finance her campaign.

“I’m the only nonmillionaire up here,” said Savage, a retired public school teacher.

It’s no wonder why the candidates had a lot to say about campaign spending. The ads — whether on television, radio, mail or online — are everywhere, and they’re relentless.

The Wesleyan Media Project recently reported that candidates and political groups spent $21 million on TV ads during a 50-day stretch between July 15 and Sept. 4 — that’s roughly 28 ads per hour over the same period.

“This is the marquee race in the country for the U.S. Senate,” said Tony Corrado, a professor of government studies at Colby College and one of the leading campaign finance experts in the country.

Corrado said the state’s U.S. Senate race reflects the trend of increasingly nationalized contests.

“Fundraising and spending has now become basically a borderless activity,” he said.

That’s why so many of the donations to the candidates — especially Collins and Gideon — are coming from other states. It’s also why so much spending by groups independent of the candidates is coming from outside of Maine.

Add the fact that the Maine race could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. Senate next year, and you have the ingredients for record-breaking campaign spending.

The deluge of money is also grist for the candidates.

“And Sen. Collins has taken nearly $6 million during her time as a senator,” Gideon said, criticizing Collins for accepting corporate political action committee money.

Corporate PAC donations are one of the newer fronts in campaign rhetoric wars, because they can give the impression that candidates are beholden to special interests or corporations.

Collins has received roughly $2 million from corporate PACs this election cycle. But while Gideon’s campaign has sworn off donations from corporate PACs, she has received donations from leadership PACs that do accept them — a practice condemned by Savage.

“The candidates can just do what I’ve done: don’t accept corporate donations, don’t accept money from corporate lobbyists, corporate PACs, the PACs that launder corporate money so candidates can claim they’re not taking it while taking it,” she said.

“Sara Gideon has set a record in the amount of dark money that has flooded the airwaves in this state. I’m sure that all of you out there are as sick of them as I am,” Collins said, blaming Gideon for what’s known as dark money, which is separate from corporate PACs and often misunderstood by the public.

It’s true that organizations that can shield the identity of their donors are attempting to influence the Maine Senate race. But as Corrado explained, Gideon can’t control that spending and she can’t actually receive donations from dark money groups or the other groups that have spent nearly $40 million on the race so far.

“No, the money being spent by this group is almost all independent of the candidates,” he said. “Candidates are not allowed to have discussions with these groups, to direct, control, suggest, or advise on any of these expenditures.”

Corrado also provided some context about a 2012 Senate bill known as the Disclose Act, which would have lifted the veil on dark money groups by making them reveal donors who give more than $10,000 in a two-year election cycle for political or electoral purposes.

Collins voted against advancing the 2012 Disclose Act to a final vote and defended her decision during the debate.

“The Disclose Act exempted powerful special interests, including the NRA and labor unions. That’s not cleaning up the system,” she said.

Other Republicans had a similar criticism. Current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used a speech hosted by the American Enterprise Institute in 2012 to frame the bill as an attempt by Democrats to punish conservative groups.

“The Disclose Act aims to get around this ruling by compelling certain targeted groups to disclose the names of their donors while excluding others, such as unions, from doing the same,” McConnell said.

“The Disclose Act did not give any favorable treatment to labor unions,” Corrado said.

He said the Disclose Act treated labor unions, corporations, trade associations and nonprofits all the same. But because labor unions primarily rely on workers’ dues for their income, it seemed unlikely that any of them would hit the $10,000 donor threshold.

“In some ways it was a strawman to justify voting against the bill,” Corrado said.

Nevertheless, the claims and counter-claims about the spending in the U.S. Senate race are bound to continue. And so is the spending, which Corrado said is likely to spike further in the coming weeks.

Correction: U.S. Sen. Susan Collins has received roughy $2 million from corporate PACs this election cycle, not over the years.

Originally published 5:11 p.m. September 15, 2020