Maine’s newly-revamped system of public campaign financing was successful in a wide range of contests across the state on Tuesday, with a majority of Clean Elections candidates winning in primary races where they were matched against privately-financed opponents.
Clean Elections candidates won eight of thirteen such match-ups for the State Senate and four of seven State House contests.
These result are particularly noteworthy given that primary candidates running Clean are limited to a single disbursement, unlike in general election races where they can collect more $5 checks from district voters to qualify for additional public funds. The primary is therefore, theoretically, the part of the electoral cycle where they should be at the greatest disadvantage.
These graphs from Darren Fishell make the results even more clear. As you can see, the two highest-spending Democratic state senate candidates, Rep. Diane Russell of Portland and Rep. Barry Hobbins of Saco (who together account for almost 40% of all money spent in Democratic senate races this year) both lost to Clean Elections opponents.
On the Republican side, the race with the highest overall spending saw Clean Elections candidate Rep. Rick Long edge out privately-funded and establishment-backed candidate Emily Smith, despite a nearly $2,000 spending disadvantage.
That’s not to say that public financing was the deciding factor in all those races, nor did Clean Elections candidates win across the board. Several contests went the other way, including in Portland where privately-funded Rep. Mark Dion won a Democratic primary over Clean Elections candidate Jill Duson. On the Republican side, incumbent State Senator Linda Baker, using Clean Elections, lost to upstart, LePage-backed candidate Guy Lebida of Topsham, who ran a privately-financed campaign.
Overall, however, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections executive director Andrew Bossie is right to note that “the results of Tuesday’s primary elections indicate that Clean Election candidates can be competitive when facing privately financed candidates, even when outspent.”
In most cases (with the notable exception of the District 27 Democratic Primary in Portland) the use of Clean Elections or private financing not did not become a major public issue in the campaigns, but some other advantages probably came into play for those who ran Clean. It’s likely that they were prompted to engage more directly with a broader range of their constituents early in the campaign in order to gather qualifying contributions, and, once qualified, they were probably able to spend a greater proportion of their time than their opponents on direct voter contact rather than continued fundraising.
While Maine’s Clean Elections Act was strengthened and re-endorsed by voters in the referendum last year, this year Governor Paul LePage vetoed a measure to ensure adequate funding for the program by paying back some of the money that has been “borrowed” from its accounts by past legislatures. Republicans upheld the veto and also blocked a Democratic proposal to fund the program by closing corporate tax loopholes, as the referendum required, instead preferring to rely on outlays from the General Fund.
Clean Elections officials are cautiously optimistic that existing funds will suffice for the current cycle.