The state’s Clean Election system is even grubbier than you thought.
The Maine Commission on Ethics and Governmental Practices recently, controversially, decided that hundreds of thousands of dollars of TV ads urging the re-election of Governor John Baldacci, financed by national Democratic groups, did not cross the legal line requiring that matching public funds be given to his Clean Election opponents. The ads were deemed to be independent of the Baldacci campaign. But the commissioners were missing an important piece of the puzzle: federal tax forms show the Baldacci campaign was getting more intimate help than was reported from its biggest national supporter, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA).
The Republicans aren’t much different. When the chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, came to Maine recently, he promised the RGA would spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” on behalf of GOP gubernatorial nominee Chandler Woodcock, according to the Bangor Daily News. He also said the RGA would provide out-of-state GOP activists to campaign for Woodcock.
But the RGA, which has already spent a fortune on TV ads promoting Woodcock, is, like the DGA, barred by Maine’s Clean Election Act from directly advocating for a candidate’s election in its advertising.
The Democrats at first appeared troubled by Romney’s words and went so far as to file a complaint about them with the commission, but almost immediately withdrew it, without explanation to the commission. The state party didn’t comment when asked by the Phoenix.
First, let’s look at the background. At center stage are these national groups, the RGA and the DGA, who spend money in governors’ races around the nation, seeking to get their party’s candidate elected. In the DGA’s efforts to support Baldacci, the group has contributed at least $233,000 to the Maine Democratic Party, according to state campaign finance reports.
In turn, the Maine party’s major activity, using the funds from the DGA and other national party groups, has been to campaign for Baldacci, largely through huge numbers of television spots. In its last report to the ethics commission, the Maine Democratic Party said it had spent close to $500,000 on these ads in just the brief period from August 29 to September 12.
This substantial sum, however, has not been counted as a Baldacci campaign expense because the political appointees on the ethics commission — overruling its staff — looked at the letter and not the spirit of the Clean Election law, approving also the RGA’s $400,000 in TV ads on behalf of Woodcock. (The commission has two Democrats, two Republicans, and an independent.) The law states that any independent advertising connected to the election cannot be “express advocacy.” The TV ads do not literally say “vote for” Baldacci, although they do everything short of that — for example, they praise his accomplishments, use his picture, and display his name.
(After October 18, though, the rules changed: any mention of the candidate in the advertising triggered matching funds, meaning more money to all three Clean Election gubernatorial candidates, Woodcock, Green Independent Pat LaMarche, and independent Barbara Merrill. So far, spending by Baldacci and the Maine Democratic Party has sent about $250,000 in matching funds to each candidate.)