PACs Unleash Attack Ads in Maine Governor's Race

Sep 3, 2014

The leaves on some trees are just starting to turn in parts of Maine - and that means it's attack ad season. New TV and radio ads paid for by competing political action committees are injecting some fresh vitriol into the state's gubernatorial campaign.

The Republican Governor's Association and the Democratic-backing Maine Forward PACs have made major advertising buys in Maine that are designed to paint ugly portraits of both Gov. Paul LePage and Congressman Mike Michaud. It may cause some viewers anguish, but one political science professor says the money's well spent -- because attack ads work.  

They've only just begun:

Audio from ad: "LePage's behavior and crude comments have been a national embarassment, his divisive politics are hurting Maine's families. Now Maine's economy is falling behind. Ranked one of the worst states in the nation for business and development."

That's the latest from the progressive Maine Forward PAC, taking on Republican Gov. Paul LePage for his confrontational style. It follows on the heals of an ad launched this week by the Republican Governor's Association that says that Democratic opponent Mike Michaud would give welfare benefits to illegal immigrants.

Audio from ad: "Michaud would put Maine taxpayers on the hook for over one million dollars in payments to illegal immigrants and make Maine more attractive to illegal immigrants who can't get benefits in other states."

Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt says she's preparing herself for just about anything from the RGA. "You know, the Republican Governor's Association has already proven that they're going to say whatever they have to in order to win this election," Reinholt says.

But David Sorensen, the Maine Republican Party's communications director, says the ad informs rather than attacks. "The RGA put out a very straight-forward ad that sticks to the facts and talks about a specific policy issue - in this case, Michaud's support of welfare benefits going to illegal immigrants," Sorensen says.

As for the new ad from the Maine Forward PAC that goes after LePage's behavior, crude comments and divisive approach to problem solving, Sorensen says that's all the governor's critics have left to target, because polling indicates that a majority of Mainers support LePage's policies.

"What we saw in this ad was the Democrats and their allies, big labor, going after Gov. LePage on his personality because they just don't the issues on their side," Sorensen says.

"Campaigns use attack ads because they know they work," says University of Maine Political Science Professor Mark Brewer. Brewer says because the race is close and Labor Day is behind us, the gloves are off and the PAC-funded ads will flourish.

"They have a proven track record," Brewer says. "They're a way to move and influence undecided voters, and even voters who may think they have their minds made up but they're not fully committed. And I think both of these ads, regardless of what the campaigns might say, that both of these ads are clearly attack ads."

PAC officers and the candidates' campaigns are not allowed to coordinate their campaign strategies, and that gives the candidates the luxury of taking the high road in their campaign ads -- if they choose. In most campaigns, Brewer says that's usually the strategy.

"As a candidate, you want to keep your hands clean of that stuff, you want to be able to go out and say with a straight face, 'That's not my campaign, I'm not engaging in those kind of attacks.' " Brewer says.

The impact these ads have in the race, says Brewer, will be determined largely by undecided voters. At the moment, Brewer says LePage has an edge over Michaud in that department for two reasons: one, LePage's undecided vote would seem to be lower than Michaud's, and two, because Michaud is also competing against independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.

"I think that he just might be more vulnerable because Paul LePage's support is locked in," Brewer says. "If you're a LePage supporter, you're a LePage supporter and you're unlikely to change that. If you're an an anti-LePage person, you're an anti-LePage person and you're unlikely to change that. Michaud is more vulnerable only because his ceiling is higher, and I suppose his floor is more uncertain. And you could say the same thing about Eliot Cutler."

Cutler campaign spokeswoman Crystal Canney says the independent has repeatedly vowed that he will not engage in any type of negative advertising.