Down East 2013 ©
Last year, Brian Langley and Jim Schatz were colleagues, representing adjacent districts of Hancock County in the state legislature. Though from opposing parties, they worked together on legislation and when they discovered they would be running against one another for their area’s senate seat, they met in the State House chamber and agreed, as Langley puts it to “never say a bad thing about each other.”
Langley (a Republican restaurateur from Ellsworth) and Schatz (a Democratic innkeeper from Blue Hill) — kept their gentlemanly pledge. Unfortunately, the wider world refused to abide by it.
On the Monday before last November’s election, local radio frequencies and the television stations up in Bangor suddenly started broadcasting ads blasting Schatz. Big glossy fliers arrived in mailboxes from Stonington to Winter Harbor, accusing him of voting to pay $10,000 to “a political organization” when he was selectman in Blue Hill two years earlier, then voting to cancel the town’s Independence Day fireworks display a year later.
Langley was horrified. “They were outrageous and way out of line,” he says of the ads, which bore tiny print noting they had been paid for by the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) in Alexandria, Virginia. “The substance was ludicrous, and the fallout from that was terrible for me.”
Not only that, they weren’t even true. Schatz had voted against canceling the Fourth of July fireworks in 2009. And it was the people of Blue Hill who had voted at town meeting to contribute $10,000 to a statewide effort to repeal the school consolidation law; Schatz couldn’t vote because he was the meeting’s moderator.
Knowing the ads would go down like a lead balloon, Langley first tried to stop them (his messages to the RSLC went unanswered) then denounced them in his own media campaign and statements to reporters. But the false adverts kept coming — $65,387 worth, paid for by the RSLC as part of the group’s $400,000 effort against Democratic candidates in five Maine senate districts.
“This cost me votes and cost me the respect of a lot of people in my community who thought I had something to do with it,” says Langley, who still won the contest by seventeen points. “What bothers me the most is that people can just come along and drop a bomb from 40,000 feet, and I have to pick up the pieces.”
Vulgar politics have arrived in Maine with a vengeance. A state that has prided itself on civility and moderation, Maine just witnessed a tide of negative advertising of a scale and tenor not seen in living memory. It was paid for by Democrats and Republicans, by prominent local individuals, and by shadowy groups from far away. It struck at gubernatorial candidates and congressional ones, and even at would-be state senators representing towns few outside of Maine had ever heard of. And it has left many wondering if all the millions spent in these efforts really did anyone any good.
“This was by far the most negative campaign cycle I’ve seen in Maine. It’s not even close,” says University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer. “We don’t have any exit polls to know for sure if they worked, but I think its clear in some races it really didn’t.”
“We’ve always had a very civil politics — that’s just who we were,” adds independent Angus King, who served as governor from 1995 to 2002 and endorsed independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler in the final days of the election in reaction to the wave of negative ads. “I don’t recall anything like we saw this November.”
The most infamous ads: a volley of flyers from the Maine Democratic Party attacking Cutler as an enemy of the environment hell-bent on sending Mainers’ jobs to China. “The Exxon Valdez in Alaska…The BP Spill in Louisiana,” one intoned. “With Eliot Cutler as Governor — Maine could be next.” This was rather a stretch, given that Cutler helped write the federal Clean Water Act and strongly opposed opening the Gulf of Maine to offshore drilling. Two other flyers claimed Cutler had last summer “brought Chinese businessmen to Maine who are on the lookout for companies to buy and jobs to bring back to China.” In fact, the Chinese were importers looking to buy lobster and blueberries from Maine suppliers, who might profit from getting some customers in the world’s largest market.
The flyers, which flooded people’s mailboxes in late October, turned into a $59,000 mistake for the Democrats, triggering a miniature civil war. Forty-two Democrats — including four legislators and a past executive director of the Maine Democratic Party — issued a statement denouncing the ads as “scurrilous, slanderous, and intentionally deceitful.” Maine Democratic National Committee member Sam Spencer — Cutler’s godson, but a supporter of Democratic candidate Libby Mitchell — called them “fundamentally dishonest…xenophobic and borderline racist” and urged the party “to restore its commitment to honesty, civility, and decency.”
“My father was a staunch Democrat, and I’ve been a staunch Democrat, but I’ve never seen anything like this coming from the Maine Democratic Party,” says Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, who campaigned for Cutler. “It’s all well and good to bring out someone’s record and discuss it, but this type of trash was way over the edge. It has no place in Maine politics.”
Mitchell declined to condemn or distance herself from the ads, which probably accelerated the collapse of her electoral support. (She finished a distant third with just 19 percent of the vote.) “My impression is that the negative advertising really did backfire, and that the mailers from the Maine Democratic Party in particular did not help the party’s cause,” says Spencer. “Maine is a small state and everyone knows each other, so negative campaigning isn’t going to work as well as it would in other, more impersonal parts of the country.”
(The Maine Democratic Party and their 2010 campaign director, Arden Manning, did not return our calls, nor did the RSLC.)
Cutler and LePage also came under fire from Emily’s List, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic outfit backed by $750,000 in donations from billionaire hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman — fiancé of Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree — who funneled an additional $1.3 million into Maine races through a variety of channels. Within days of receiving Sussman’s donation, Emily’s List dumped $400,000 into a shell organization called Maine Women Vote!, which bought $118,000 worth of ads attacking LePage and Cutler. This shell re-forwarded $250,000 into another entity, Citizens Who Support Public Schools, where it was added to an additional $50,000 from Sussman and $260,000 from Maine’s teachers’ union; this particular group spent an impressive $404,000 in ads opposing Paul LePage, the eventual gubernatorial winner.
The Maine Women Vote! flyers were similar in tone to the Maine Democratic Party ones. They accurately quoted some of LePage’s more colorful statements (a pledge to regularly tell President Obama “to go to hell”; a desire to punch a tenacious public radio reporter). But they quoted Cutler as saying, “Governors don’t create jobs,” without completing the oft-repeated line from his stump speech —“What governors and governments can do is create the conditions in which people and businesses will invest, prosper, and create new jobs” — effectively inverting its meaning. Unlike the Maine Democrats, Emily’s List and Sussman were able to avoid any backlash because their involvement was invisible to voters.
But Sussman came under fire from the Maine Republican Party all the same. In a television spot, the GOP denounced Rep. Pingree, saying her “boyfriend got $200 million from the Wall Street bailout” and “now she flies on her own private jet.” Portland’s NBC affiliate, WCSH, declined to run the ad because it carried a known falsehood. “We review hundreds of these ads, but this was the only one I needed to pull because it was factually clear that the jet belonged to Sussman, not Pingree,” explains station president Steve Thaxton.
Actually, the ad was wrong about Sussman’s firm, Paloma Partners, as well. They never received money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), nor would they have been left holding the bag for $200 million had TARP never existed, as the transaction at issue (a securities loan with an AIG subsidiary) was fully collateralized. (Maine Republican Party’s Lance Dutson — who defended the ad’s claims at the time — didn’t return our calls either.)
Meanwhile, fifty out-of-state corporations and industry associations — the big drug companies, private prison operators, chemical makers, defense contractors, and others — bankrolled $770,000 in ads supporting LePage or savaging Mitchell and Cutler. Their contributions to Maine Republicans — $1.78 million altogether — were funneled through yet another entity, the Republican Governors Association Maine PAC.
But in many ways, the RSLC ads were the most disturbing, as they introduced an outsized, insidious, unwelcome, and unaccountable force into local races. In addition to Langley’s contest, the interlopers dumped between $71,000 and $98,000 on state senate races in the Augusta, Auburn, Bangor, and Waterville areas, buying ads suggesting Democratic candidates were for taxes and against job growth. The group also delayed reporting these expenditures, which meant Clean Elections candidates didn’t receive matching funds until it was too late to use them to effect. (The state ethics commission is currently investigating the situation.)
“We have a citizen’s legislature, and if these kinds of negative advertising campaigns are going to filter down into local races, it’s going to make it hard to get good people to run,” says Augusta Mayor Roger Katz, another embittered “beneficiary” of the ads. “Why would you subject yourself to this kind of criticism, this innuendo that you don’t care about people, you don’t care about taxes, and you don’t really care about Maine?”
The ads absolutely backfired, says Senate President Kevin Raye (R-Perry), who is “furious” with the RSLC for creating them. “It is so frustrating to have a system where a candidate can lose control of their own campaign to some outside group,” he says. “Their ham-handed approach damaged our candidates, who would have been better off without them.” (All five candidates won, two of them by a single-digit margin.)
The lesson, says Eliot Cutler, is that negative ads work, until they don’t. “Consultants all concede that there’s always a line out there you can’t cross, and once you do you see steeply diminishing returns,” he says. “I don’t think negative advertising will ever be curtailed by a law because it’s too false or too misleading or too defamatory. It’s going to be a function of the electorate deciding with their votes that it’s something they don’t want.”