It is campaign ad season once again, and in Maine’s Second Congressional District a new, secretive group appears to be attempting to tilt the three-way democratic contest in favor of one of the candidates – Lucas St. Clair.
St. Clair's campaign has said it has nothing to do with the TV spots blanketing the airwaves. But there are signs that the group behind the ads has close ties to St. Clair and his mother, Burt’s Bees Inc. co-founder Roxanne Quimby.
Campaign ads that make a case for a candidate are paid for by the their campaigns, and if you want to see who's funding those campaigns, you can.
But that's not the case with a new group called the Maine Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit organization that sprung up in late March. The group is now running ads about saving the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument from the Trump administration – an issue that has been largely settled since December, when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the monument is likely safe from changes by the federal government.
Nonetheless, the ads provide a number to call Zinke, so viewers can tell him to leave the monument alone. The number goes to the general number for the Department of Interior – a bureaucracy of over 70,000 employees.
But contacting Zinke probably is not the main purpose of the ads. They focus heavily on the congressional candidate who is often credited with making the national monument a reality.
Testimonials like that are pretty standard in candidate ads, and they would make perfect sense in a campaign spot for St. Clair, one of three Democrats in the primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat.
But the Maine Outdoor Alliance does not explicitly say in the ad that it supports St. Clair's candidacy. It is incorporated as a nonprofit and its ads are classified by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as issue based – a pair of designations increasingly used by so-called ‘dark money groups’ that attempt to influence voters, but whose donors can remain secret.
Dan Corcoran, a forester who appears in one of the ads, said he cannot remember the names of the people from Maine Outdoor Alliance who contacted him.
"It was not my understanding that it was a campaign ad,” Corcoran said. “It was to identify and build support for the national monument.”
Corcoran also said that he is not entirely sure who Maine Outdoor Alliance is, which puts him in the same position as the rest of the public.
So far, the Maine Outdoor Alliance isn't responding to requests for comment.
But publicly available information offers some clues about who is running the organization. According to articles of incorporation papers filed with the Secretary of State, Nathan Deyesso is the incorporator for Maine Outdoor Alliance.
Deyesso runs a business in Scarborough and, according to a 2008 copy of Gould Academy's alumni magazine, he was St. Clair's best man at his wedding.
Deyesso did not respond to requests for comment.
Nor did Barrett Kaiser, a Montana-based political consultant linked to the agency that FCC documents show purchased the Maine Outdoor Alliance ads. Kaiser was hired by Burt’s Bees Inc. co-founder Roxanne Quimby to lead the monument campaign.
Quimby is St. Clair's mother. She did not respond to requests for comment.
"You know, I don't think there's any question that the people who are doing this are supporters of Lucas and the effort he put it in to creating the national monument," said David Farmer, a spokesperson for St. Clair’s campaign.
"We don't know who's doing this," he said.
Farmer said the campaign is not affiliated with the Maine Outdoor Alliance.
"We have not talked with them, we have not coordinated with them in any way. And we were unaware of the ads until we saw it like everyone else," Farmer said.
Farmer also said that these kinds of ads are the reality of the campaign finance laws that many Democratic candidates say are broken. Among them is St. Clair, who addressed the explosion of spending and dark money groups during a candidate forum held in January.
"You know I think that Citizens United and money in politics has been the ultimate corruption of our democracy in our lifetime," he said.
Farmer was asked if St. Clair planned to denounce the dark money ads running on his behalf.
"Yeah, we would prefer that it be a straight contest," Farmer said.
It does not look like Maine Outdoor Alliance will let that happen, though. The group just increased its television ad buy to over $300,000 for the first half of May.
Originally published 4:57 p.m.May 4