Every day when she gets home from work, Sharon Houle is greeted by five or six pieces of oversized cardstock trying to convince her how to vote.
She constantly changes the radio in her car to avoid political advertisements. She records most of her television shows so she can fast-forward through commercials. She’s overwhelmed, frustrated and confused by the messaging and amount of money spent to try to influence Maine voters.
“Nothing in my mailbox is going to change my mind,” said Houle, 64, of Waterville. “I’ve already voted.”
Like all Mainers, Houle is witnessing what $196 million can buy in an election year when a formerly popular incumbent faces the challenge of her political life. The spending on federal races this year is nearly eight times the amount spent at this point in 2018, which also shattered records. The figures combine campaign contributions – individuals spending on candidates – and spending by outside groups and political parties, as reported through Oct. 23. This is an undercount of direct campaign cash, as campaign finance data is not yet available past Oct. 14. The candidates also have not spent all the money they received.
Of the $196.9 million infused into this year’s federal races, $9.45 of every $10 was directed at the race in which Republican Sen. Susan Collins is trying to hold on against a fierce challenge from Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democrat, and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn.
The latest poll, released Oct. 15 and conducted by the Portland firm Digital Research Insights for the Bangor Daily News, showed Gideon leading Collins by seven percentage points.
Maine is among a handful of purple states whose results could determine whether Democrats can wrest control of the Senate, making it one of the most closely watched races in the country. And all the spending is an indication of “how important Senate control is and how polarized the electorate is,” said James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine at Farmington.
“It’s so abnormal for Maine,” he said. “We haven’t had a competitive Senate race in a long time.”
The unprecedented amount of spending on the federal race this year is among four notable campaign finance takeaways The Maine Monitor identified in examining the money flowing into the state’s 2020 elections.
To help put this year’s Senate race spending in context, the amount Gideon and Collins raised in the third quarter – excluding outside and party-coordinated funding – nearly equals the amount raised by all Senate general election candidates in Maine from 2000-18, said Colby College Government Professor Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert. Gideon raised $39 million from July through September and Collins raised $8.3 million for a total of $47.3 million, compared to $48.6 million in the previous seven general election Senate races.
Collins and Gideon are also on pace to raise more money than the total amount raised by all Senate and House general election candidates combined since 2000. In the previous 20 years, federal candidates raised $91.7 million. Currently, Collins is at $25.1 million and Gideon is at $68.1 million as of Oct. 23. This excludes outside and party-coordinated funding.
“It’s not surprising this has proved to be the most expensive race in Maine history,” Corrado said. “It certainly surpasses what I expected, but it’s not unexpected. Enormous resources are being poured into a handful of races to determine control of the Senate.”
Melcher said Gideon has likely benefited in fundraising because Democratic donors across the country are motivated this year.
“It’s part of the nationalization of the election,” he said. “The perception among Democrats is that the seat is winnable.”
When it comes to the impact of money on races, Melcher said there are many examples of candidates who spend a lot of money and still lose. He referenced Michael Huffington, who spent $28 million of his own money, only to lose a 1994 California Senate race.
“A lot of money won’t elect a bad candidate,” he said. “The really key thing is having enough money out there to get known.”
When Collins last ran six years ago, total spending in her race against state Sen. Shenna Bellows, a Democrat, was $5.4 million. Collins won big, garnering 68.5 percent of the vote. And two years ago, when Sen. Angus King, an Independent, ran for re-election, the spending on federal races was $31.3 million. But that wasn’t driven by King’s victory over Republican Eric Brakey and Democrat Zack Ringelstein. It was driven by spending in the 2nd Congressional District, where Democrat Jared Golden narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin.
Meanwhile, spending on races for control of the state Legislature lagged behind spending at the same point in 2018 – until last week. Cash directed at state races reached $7.3 million through Oct. 23, tying the 2018 total, but exceeding the amount that had been spent by Oct. 23, 2018. That is likely because there are 34 uncontested seats among the 186 up for grabs this year, said Phil Harriman, a political commentator and former Republican state Senator. Also, the coronavirus pandemic has kept legislative candidates from conducting the kind of door-to-door campaigning that had been typical, he said.
Of the 34 uncontested races, two are Portland Democrats running for Senate, 22 are Democrats running for the House and 10 are Republicans seeking House seats.
When it comes to Collins vs. Gideon, Harriman said he thinks Mainers have had enough of negative commercials.
“I think they are embarrassed for the candidates,” he said. “This is so over the top in terms of how much time they are buying and the ‘let me pull you down so I can rise up’ approach.”
As a voter, Houle said she most wants to know what’s true and what’s not. She likened the TV commercials to an attorney in a courtroom saying something that shouldn’t be said, knowing the jury will be influenced.
“All that money being spent and it’s in your face all the time,” she said. “I can’t wait until it’s over. Can you imagine if they used it for good? If they used it for charity?”
Outside spending dwarfs amounts spent in previous years, but proportion of opposition spending is slightly down
Outside groups, which are not allowed to coordinate with candidates, have poured money into Maine’s federal races, contributing $91 million as of Oct. 23. Those outside groups put about $7 of every $10 toward attack, or opposition, ads. While the overall amount of outside spending dwarfs amounts in prior races, the proportion of opposition spending to overall spending is slightly down.
Opposition spending made up 36 percent (or $70.7 million) of all cash in the federal races in 2020, compared to 40 percent ($2.7 million) when Collins last ran in 2014, and 47.7 percent ($14.9 million) in 2018.
Thirty-one groups have spent to oppose Collins this year, totaling $38.9 million as of Oct. 23, while just four groups are spending against Gideon, totaling $30.7 million. The highest-spending groups are super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals and organizations, but cannot contribute to or directly coordinate with candidates.
If Collins wins despite all the spending against her, it may be a warning to outside groups looking to influence Maine elections in the future, said Michael Franz, professor of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College.
“If Mainers decide that’s not what they want, that may be something campaigns need to think about when there’s another competitive race,” he said.
Here’s a sampling of the groups involved:
SMP: The Senate Majority PAC was formed in 2011 and spends money in an effort by Democrats to win back the Senate and defend sitting Democratic senators, according to its website. It has spent about $21.6 million opposing Collins. The super PAC has also spent upwards of $20 million apiece to oppose Republican candidates in North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and Iowa.
The national group’s top individual donors include Fred Eyechaner, the chairman of the Chicago-based alternative media group Newsweb Corporation, who donated $8 million; James Simons, founder of the New York hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who contributed $5 million; and Donald Sussman, Paloma Partners executive and former husband of Maine’s 1st Congressional District incumbent Chellie Pingree, who donated $4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It also received $10 million from the union-backed super PAC Working for Working Americans and the Democracy PAC.
NRSC: The National Republican Senatorial Committee is devoted to strengthening the Republican majority in the Senate and supporting Republican Senate candidates, according to its website. It has spent $19.3 million opposing Gideon. The NRSC has also spent more than $12 million per race to oppose Democratic senate candidates in Montana, North Carolina and Iowa.
Its top individual donors include billionaires Ken and Sherrilyn Fisher, of Fisher Investments, who donated nearly $264,000, and David Humphreys, CEO of TAMKO Building Products, who donated $142,000. The top groups that donated to the NRSC include the Air Line Pilots Association, The Boeing Company and Koch Industries, each of which contributed $210,000.
The Lincoln Project: Current and former Republicans formed the super PAC in late 2019 with a major focus on defeating President Donald Trump. But the super PAC also invested in other down-ticket races against Trump-aligned candidates, running commercials in Maine against Collins to the tune of nearly $1.7 million. It spent more than $1 million in just two other senatorial races this year, to oppose Alaska’s Dan Sullivan and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham.
Stephen Mandel, Connecticut-based founder of Lone Pine Capital hedge fund, and Gordon Getty, an investor, philanthropist and son of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, each contributed $1 million, making them the super PAC’s top individual donors. The largest organizational donation – totaling $300,000 – came from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a nonprofit that contributed $140 million to left-leaning causes in 2018, according to a Politico investigation.
1820 PAC: A single-candidate super PAC named after the year Maine was founded, this Washington-based committee raises and spends money only on Collins – both to support her and oppose Gideon. So far this cycle, it has spent $9.3 million.
Some of the super PAC’s largest individual donors include billionaires Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of private equity firm The Blackstone Group, and Kenneth Griffin, CEO of the investment firm Citadel. Schwarzman and Griffin each contributed $1.5 million to the 1820 PAC, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
On the organizational side, Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for clean energy policies, donated $250,000, and the Society of Young Woman Scientists and Engineers LLC (SYWSE), which is registered in Honolulu and has a scant online footprint, gave $150,000. The Campaign Legal Center sued the Federal Elections Committee earlier this month for failing to act on a complaint it filed in February against SYWSE for its contributions to the 1820 PAC. The Campaign Legal Center claims SYWSE officials illegally made contributions under other names and failed to register and file reports as a political committee, according to court documents.
A Daily Beast report also linked 1820 PAC to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
State candidates spent more of their own money this year
While many candidates are using the state’s Clean Election system with $3.5 million given to candidates as of Oct. 23, some who are not are pouring cash into their own races. In 2020, candidates or spouses contributed $291,505, compared to just $88,539 in 2018; $200,192 in 2016; and $364,684 in 2014.
Of the big spenders this cycle, two lost in their primaries.
Democrat Sari Stern Greene of South Portland, who received a contribution of $68,742 from her husband, Eric Boutiette, lost in the District 29 Democratic primary to Rep. Anne Carney of Cape Elizabeth. Carney received 66 percent of the vote; Greene had 34 percent.
And in Senate District 7, John D. Linnehan of Ellsworth contributed $15,734 to his primary campaign against former Republican state Sen. Brian Langley. Langley, who is also from Ellsworth, defeated Linnehan 72 to 28 percent. In 2004, Linnehan spent nearly $200,000, much of it his own money, in a failed bid for a state Senate seat, according to The Ellsworth American.
Turning toward the November election, Republican Michael Mullins of Rockland, who is running in House District 93, contributed $46,216 to his campaign. He is running against Rockland City Councilor Valli Geiger, a Democrat. The seat is open following Democratic Rep. Pinny Beebe-Center’s decision not to seek re-election.
Democrat Joseph Baldacci, the brother of former Gov. John Baldacci, contributed $37,627 to his race in Senate District 9 against Sean Hinkley, a Republican. Current Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick (D-Bangor) could not seek re-election because of term limits.
Melcher, the University of Maine professor, said the bump in legislative candidates self-funding is likely due to a few big spenders. He recalled Linnehan’s major expenditure a few years ago and said those with money don’t feel the need to take advantage of the state’s Clean Election system.
“That bounces up and down based on a few candidates,” he said. “There’s not necessarily a trend there.”
Franz, who teaches at Bowdoin, said he’s not in a position to know whether the political parties are seeking out wealthy candidates, but said it’s more likely that because of the pandemic, there were fewer opportunities for fundraisers. That left candidates or their spouses to fill in the gaps, he said.
Wealthy donors make an outsized share of contributions on federal and state levels
Donors who contributed the maximum amount made up 4.43 percent of all individual donors in federal races, but totaled nearly 28 percent of the total cash contributed, or almost $8 million as of Oct. 23. At the state level, they made up 2.3 percent of individual donors and 21 percent of the cash.
The contribution limits for federal races are much higher, so donations are more heavily skewed. While individuals can contribute up to $2,800 per election in this year’s federal races, individuals can contribute no more than $400 per election to candidates in state legislative races. Maxed-out donors are the ones who donated the most possible money to a candidate in both their primary and general elections – meaning $5,600 to a federal candidate or $800 to a state one.
Melcher said it’s not surprising that the super wealthy make up a small percentage of donors, yet they have an outsized impact on the cash donated in the race.
“Your average person doesn’t have that kind of money to throw around,” he said.
The percentage of maxed-out donors in federal and state races is likely undercounted because there may be individuals who have written their names differently across multiple contributions. Among the nearly 1,500 recorded maxed-out donors in Maine’s federal races are:
Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam – who recently made headlines for contributing $75 million to a pro-Trump super PAC, according to NPR – each donated $5,600 to Collins, totaling $11,200.
Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura similarly donated a collective $11,200 to Collins.
Robert Bahre, former owner of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Oxford Plains Speedway who died in late July, donated $5,600 to Collins.
Director Steven Spielberg donated $5,600 to Gideon, as did singer/actress Barbra Streisand.
Corrado, the Colby College professor, said for Mainers weary of all the ads, it’s important to remember what an unusual year it is for politics on the state and national stage.
“I think what we’re seeing here is this confluence of a very close race, a very close Senate, and an incumbent who has been involved in a number of highly controversial issues,” he said, noting Collins’ vote in support of Trump’s tax cuts and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
And even though many people had already voted by mid-October, Corrado said neither side can stop pushing for those final few votes.
“It’s an enormous amount of money chasing very few voters,” he said. “They are throwing millions of dollars at that 2 percent of the vote that may make the difference.”