Once upon a time, state elections in Maine were Everyman’s game. Anyone could jump right in. The parties would scare up a driver to get the candidates going door-to-door, and with a good dose of elbow grease a candidate would rise or fall on his or her own merits.
That was in the days of “all politics is local,” but now it’s “all politics is national.” The political parties’ eyes are on a bigger prize than winning a local seat. What matters is what it will do to the numbers in Augusta. And will it help the national parties make hay out of the number of legislative and gubernatorial seats they can claim?
With this interest from afar comes—ka ching!—money. Oodles of money. Money that back in the day would have funded a dozen candidates is now showered upon a single lucky contender if national string-pullers think they have something to gain. And with that money, the opportunity for plain old folks to run for office is diminished.
When the national parties step into the picture, the race becomes theirs. Example: The race for a U.S. Senate seat last year in which Senator Susan “Rocky” Collins was challenged by House Speaker Sarah Gideon. To be sure, Gideon was a credible candidate but suffered from her out-of-state backers’ delusion that a two-term House Speaker was starting out as a household name. Nope.
Gideon was not the first presiding officer to discover that her fame existed mostly within Augusta city limits. She worked like a trooper to make the acquaintance of the citizenry in the rest of the state, but to no avail. Senator Collins, a master of retail politics, carried the day, as most observers wise in the ways of Maine predicted. National Democrats simply do not get Maine. Their money can overcome a lot, but if their candidate does not resonate with the locals, never mind.
The recent race to fill the seat vacated by now Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, who had just won a third term in the Maine Senate, was easily won by former Representative Craig Hickman who was term-limited in the House in 2020. Hickman’s victory margin over former Rep. William Guerette crept close to 2/3. The over $200,000 delivered by outside groups probably did not make a lick of difference, but the accepted wisdom is we’ve just gotta spend.
Go to mainecampaignfinance.com and for the Hickman-Guerette race you will see a welter of reports that leave the reader knowing only that a lot of people spent a lot of money on this race. There are reports from the Maine Senate Republican Majority, the Maine Democratic State Committee, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and the Maine Republican Party. There are reports from PAC’s that, despite restrictions on direct contributions to candidates, manage to supply money to benefit their preferred candidate. Hickman PAC supporters included Planned Parenthood, Rebuild Maine, MPA Votes and Maine Conservation Voters Action Fund. Revive Home Town Maine PAC was in the Guerette column. Finally, there are reports from the candidates themselves.
From all of the above, there are Seed Money reports, 1-Day Special Election reports, 2-Day Special Election Reports, 42-Day Pre-General reports, 24 Hour Special Election Reports for Contributions, 24 Hour Special Election Reports for Expenditures, and 24 Hour Reports of Contributions and Expenditures. This is all in the name of transparency.
Hickman raise almost $84,000 and spent about 75 percent of it. Guerette was a “Clean Election” candidate, raised just over $41,000 and spent almost all of it. Remember, this was a special election. Shenna Bellows had been elected to the Senate on November 3. She declined to take the oath of office, instead running for Secretary of State and elected by the Legislature.
That set off the four-month contest between Hickman and Guerette, only half as long as a regular campaign for a legislative seat, but with spending that could match a full-season contest. Now that state legislative races are well up into the tens of thousands, they are no longer the home-grown affairs they once were. They exhibit all the worst characteristics of national campaigns: cheesy slogans, canned platitudes and mind-numbing and relentless ads.
Take a look at the latest U.S. Senate race in Maine, also this past fall. The Collins-Gideon race cost close to $200 million, bludgeoning us with relentless advertising and wearying us with constant sniping at each other and, poor things, their spouses.
Too bad someone doesn’t have the courage to take it on to run the way we used to, just getting out and meeting the voters. Our legislative districts are not that large. It can be done. Oh wait, someone actually tried running last year on a zero budget without fundraising. Umm, what was her name?