As the clock ticks down to the November 8 election, political action committees (PACs) are kicking into high gear with a full-on barrage of campaign ads. In the post-Citizens United world, unlimited money can flow from outside groups into races, provided that the PACs don’t coordinate with any candidates. But here in Maine, candidates themselves have the option of refusing private donations to their own campaigns by using Clean Elections, the state’s public financing system. 

This year, 72 percent of midcoast candidates for the Maine Legislature and 62 percent of candidates statewide are using Clean Elections, marking a 9-percent increase since the 2014 election cycle. According to the group Maine Citizens for Clean Elections (MCCE), the total amount of private donations to legislative campaigns has dropped by about 22 percent compared to 2014. MCCE credits the trend to the passage of last year’s referendum to increase funding for the Clean Elections program. 

Although conservatives are generally more critical of public financing, six of the 15 midcoast Republican legislative candidates along with all of the local Democratic and independent candidates are using the program this year. Former Congressman David Emery, who is challenging incumbent Sen. David Miramant in Knox County, says he opted not to use the program when he ran for governor in 2006 because he believed that the funding was insufficient. However, this year he’s running “clean.” 

“Given the widespread concern about money in politics that has grown out of the various ‘big money’ scandals of recent years, and given the growing cynicism and mistrust of politicians and politics in general, I concluded that the ‘clean elections’ process would be a way for me, as a candidate, to keep faith with voters who are looking for independence from special interests and wealthy, influential donors,” wrote Emery in an email. “In any event, I hate fund-raising, so the ‘clean elections’ system has relieved me of that burden!”

Under the Maine Clean Elections Act, House candidates must collect 60 qualifying contributions from people residing in the district in order to receive $5,000 in public money to fund their campaigns. Senate candidates must collect 175 individual $5 contributions in order to qualify for $20,000 in public funds. All Clean Elections candidates must agree to strict spending limits and are prohibited from collecting outside donations or contributing any of their own money to their campaigns. Clean Elections advocates argue that by agreeing to the spending and fundraising limits, candidates are much more accountable to the voters in their own districts than to special interests. 

However, critics of the law say that public financing takes away scarce money from other programs. Senate President Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty), who is running a privately funded campaign, has used Clean Elections in the past but says he’s “always felt kind of funny about it.” 

“In part, I’m stuck at the State House trying to run the Senate and it takes a lot of effort to go out and collect the five-dollar checks,” he said. “The other part is that taking money from state coffers when we have so many other demands, whether it’s nursing homes or people with disabilities that aren’t getting their services, and we’re spending millions of dollars on Clean Elections.”

Thibodeau is also prohibited from using the program due to a new law that prohibits Clean Elections candidates from operating “leadership PACs,” which lawmakers running for legislative leadership positions use to support other party candidates. Currently, Thibodeau helps run two leadership PACs — the Senate Republican President’s Fund and the Senate Republican Majority PAC — which this year collectively raised about $177,339 primarily from various organizations, corporations and business interests, according to the latest campaign finance filings. 

And that’s a practice that both parties engage in. As finance reports show, lobbyists and PACs often give equally to both major political parties, which is known as “pay to play” in political circles. The campaign contributions allow donors to have an amplified voice in Augusta.

The Waldo County Senate Race

This year, Sen. Thibodeau  has built a considerably greater campaign chest than two years ago. At the end of the summer of 2014, as he worked to get other Republican Senate candidates elected, he had only raised about $9,000 for his own campaign, which was about $16,000 less than his opponent Democrat Jonathan Fulford received from the Clean Elections program. Following an internal poll done in early September 2014 on his race, Thibodeau had raised an additional $5,500. And in the end, he squeaked to a win in a recount by just 105 votes. 

Facing another rematch with Fulford, who is publicly financed, Thibodeau has raked in a much larger haul of $26,672 this time around. About 65 percent of his campaign funding comes from outside of Waldo County, with about 51 percent of those contributions coming from various businesses, lobbyists and PACs. Maine law dictates that individual contributions to privately funded legislative candidates may not exceed $750 ($375 for the primary and $375 for the general election). However, it does not preclude business owners from also donating along with the company’s contribution. For instance, Thibodeau’s top contributors are the Varney family ($1,875), owners of the Bangor-based insurance company Varney Agency, and the Robbins family ($1,150), owners of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont. 

Contributors who maximized their contributions to Thibodeau’s campaign include Central Maine Power, the Maine Energy Marketers Association (formerly Maine Oil Dealers), the Maine Motor Transport Association and a PAC called “Sound Science for Maine,” which is funded by St. Louis biotech giant Monsanto, Swiss agribusiness company Syngenta and Chicago-based beer company MillerCoors. 

Monsanto has been particularly engaged in Maine’s debate over whether to require labeling of genetically modified foods (GMOs). Current Maine law requires companies to label GMO products only if New Hampshire along with three other contiguous Northeast states pass the law. Last session, the Legislature rejected a bill that would have repealed the compact provision and implemented the labeling law. According to finance reports, the “Sound Science” PAC gave $3,975 to Democrats and $2,225 to Republicans this year. 

CMP was active last session in lobbying on a number of bills affecting investor-owned utilities, such as a measure sponsored by Thibodeau that would have weakened state incentives to produce renewable power by suspending the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards if standard-offer electricity rates for residential customers hit 10 cents per kilowatt hour. This year, the company has given $12,000 to Democrats and $9,350 to Republicans. 

The British-Swedish pharmaceutical conglomerate Astra-zeneca contributed $625 to the Senate president’s campaign. Last session, the company lobbied lawmakers to oppose a bill to prevent bad-faith assertions of patent infringement and advised Gov. LePage on a legal case concerning the importation of medicine from Canada, according to the Portland Press Herald. The lion’s share of its donations ($7,500) went to Republicans, with a smaller share going to Democrats. 

Smaller donors to Thibodeaus’s PAC included the Maine Dental Association ($600), the Maine Associa-tion of Realtors ($410) and Friends of Maine Hospitals ($500). Other companies donating $375 included Boston-based lobbying firm Serlin Haley — which opposed bills requiring the stricter regulation of toxic chemicals in children’s products — the Maine Bankers Association, Anheuser-Busch, Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum, Texas Instruments, the Christian Civic League of Maine, the Coalition to Lower Maine Taxes and the Retail Association of Maine.

Outside Spenders

Critics of Clean Elections point out that campaign finance laws have little impact on independent campaign expenditures. So far, in local legislative races, most of the independent campaign spending has come from the usual suspects. Rebuild Maine, a PAC funded by local labor unions and the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, has spent $2,889 to support Fulford. The Maine Republican Party has spent $8,039 to support Thibodeau. But out-of-state entities have also come out of the woodwork to spend in Waldo County.

Back in 2014, the Washington D.C.-based “Every Voice Maine,” a PAC devoted to strengthening Maine’s Clean Election Act, spent over $58,000 on an ad attacking Thibodeau for taking $50,000 in donations from pharmaceutical companies. 

Recently, a SuperPAC formed by Oakland, California-based Progressive Kick Independent Expenditures dropped $50,000 into Waldo County to hire full-time canvassers in support of Democratic Senate candidate Jonathan Fulford. 

Progressive Kick, which campaigned heavily for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders earlier this year, is a national group with the stated goal of electing more “progressive” candidates, but so far Fulford appears to be the only candidate it’s backing in Maine. While Progressive Kick has not disclosed its donors in Maine filings, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, its major funders include the California Nurses Association, the California Federation of Teachers and Baltimore web developer Margie Roswell.

Fulford says that he has nothing to do with the PAC and as a Clean Elections candidate, he is prohibited from coordinating with it.

“We must get Big Money out of our democracy so that government is accountable to citizens,” wrote Fulford in a statement. “I’m proud to be running as a Clean Elections Candidate because I want to represent the people of Waldo County and only the people of Waldo County. I refuse to owe favors to corporations or wealthy donors whose money overwhelms the voices of people and families.”

Marijuana Growers Spending Big in House District 88

Generally, privately funded incumbent legislators collect many more donations from lobbyists and PACs than candidates who have never served. This is likely because they are more known and influential in Augusta. For instance, marijuana growers and businesses have contributed about 75 percent of the contributions to three-term incumbent Rep. Deb Sanderson’s (R-Chelsea) campaign. Sanderson has raised a total of about $7,105 this year.

“Deb’s record shows that she’s going to be looking out for the medical marijuana program first and foremost,” said medical marijuana lobbyist Paul McCarrier of Freedom. “These caregivers are people who believe in the medical marijuana program. They believe that patients should be able to get the provider of their choice and they believe in the policy positions that Deb’s been advocating for the past six years.” 

Sanderson, who is the ranking House Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee, has been instrumental in passing a number of measures to expand access to medical cannabis and to prevent the state from establishing a marijuana patient registry. McCarrier added that his group has also donated to Democrats as well. 

The rest of Sanderson’s donations have come from a handful of individuals as well as the pharmaceutical company Merck, the Maine Insurance Agents Association and the nursing home lobby. 100 percent of Sanderson’s contributors this year reside outside of her district. 

Other Privately Funded Midcoast Candidates

Rep. James Gillway (R-Searsport), a three-term incumbent serving on the Transportation Committee, has collected $4,455, with about 34 percent coming from donors outside his district, including drug company Astrazeneca, the Maine Motor Transport Association, lobbying firm Eaton Peabody, the nursing home lobby and GAC Chemical President David Coulter. 

Republican Paula Sutton of Warren has been particularly successful in fundraising for her House District 95 race, raising $11,330  from primarily individual donors. As a well-known conservative activist, she has received support from Republican politicians like Congressman Bruce Poliquin, Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock County), former Sen. Dana Dow of Waldoboro, as well as LL Bean heiress Linda Bean, conservative pundit John Frary and Tea Party activist Gordon Colby of Waldoboro. About 65 percent of Sutton’s war chest has come from outside her district. 

Republican Roberta Mayer of Damariscotta, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle), has raised $11,215, nearly all of it from individuals. About 45 percent of her donations have come from outside her district, with 39 percent coming from out of state. Former Rep. Ryan Harmon of Palermo has raised about $6,685 for his campaign to fill the seat currently occupied by outgoing Democrat Christine Burstein of Lincolnville. About 72 percent of his funding has come from outside the Waldo County district, with 23 percent coming from various businesses and PACs. Incumbent Rep. Stephanie Hawke (R-Boothbay Harbor) has raised about $7,106, with most of it coming from individuals in her district. 

However, other traditionally funded candidates in more liberal districts are lagging behind in fundraising. Belfast Republican Blaine Richardson has raised about $1,290 in his campaign to unseat three-term incumbent Democrat Erin Herbig. And Republican Sonja Sleeper of South Thomaston is currently dead last in fundraising among  midcoast candidates, with a total of $744.31 raised for the entire year. In her most recent campaign filing, she had $112.43 left in her campaign account.