Off Mic Blog: Following the Trail of Electioneering Cash

Nov 4, 2016

Editor’s note: Off Mic is a blog about things you might have missed in Maine politics. It’s a place for those news tidbits that aren’t quite a story, or that were part of story but were hacked out by a thoughtless editor.

Leftovers from the notebook while wondering if an electioneering tactic is also a thumb on the scale of  justice . . .

Jury puddle

The Maine Republican Party is making heavy use of reports last month that the owner of a halal grocery market in Portland is being investigated by federal authorities for engaging in an elaborate welfare benefits scheme. The mailer below hits two pressure points for the GOP, welfare fraud and immigrants, and maybe a third, terrorism, if you, like Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, believe refugees from certain countries are infiltrating the U.S.. Neither immigrants nor terrorism are overtly stated in the mail piece, but emotions related to those topics are arguably brought forth in the cropped newspaper photo showing the name of the market in Arabic. 

Maine GOP mailer
Credit Steve Mistler

As political communications go, the mailer might be an effective hit on Democratic legislative candidates even if the statements on the other side of the piece are not so clear cut.

GOP Mailer
Credit Steve Mistler

But lost in the politics is the fact that the owner of the depicted market has not yet been charged with a crime. If charges are ever brought and there's a trial, what are the odds that a potential juror has seen the mailer? And how does that affect defense attorneys' ability to field jurors, or prosecutors' ability to prosecute, if there's ever a jury trial? 

It's not possible to calculate how many Maine households have seen this particular mailer. But campaign finance reports show the Maine GOP has spent nearly $370,000 on mail communications since the first report of the investigation broke in mid-October.   

Ethics backlash 

Senate Democrats have taken a beating from typically reliable allies for their shoot-first-aim-whenever ethics theatrics last week.

The backlash could continue on Election Day. 

To rewind a bit: Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, called a press conference to allege that two of his GOP colleagues in the Senate ripped off taxpayers by using campaign funds to reimburse themselves for trips already paid for by the Legislature. But after Patrick's wish was granted for a never-before convened Senate ethics hearing, he never showed up to prosecute his case, Democrats had to back off their fraud claims and Republicans called them out for a narrow double-dipping review that conveniently focused on a competitive Senate race.

Sen. Ron Collins was exonerated. Action was delayed on Sen. Andre Cushing, who faces potentially more serious allegations in a civil case brought by his sister, plus a separate probe by the Maine Ethics Commission. 

Patrick appears to be in a very difficult reelection contest with Republican Lisa Keim. It's been targeted nearly 40 times by political action and party committees, which don't typically engage in noncompetitive races. And, despite being a relatively safe Democratic district, Patrick's Senate seat could be key in determining which party controls Senate.

It's not entirely clear if Republicans can turn Patrick's ethics debacle into an effective message. But the scorn from the referees in the fourth estate may help. 

Thwarting disclosure

Last year voters approved a referendum designed to strengthen Maine's taxpayer-financed campaign law. But the ballot initiative didn't just pump more money into the Clean Election program, it also required political action committees that spend money to influence legislative contests or ballot measures to disclose their top three funders (Notably, the advocates for this change didn't use the campaign to demonstrate how this would work, perhaps because the source of their finances was cloaked in nonprofits, including one that sells extra broadband spectrum to generate revenue.). 

The idea was that Mainers would gain a better understanding of who's financing campaigns or telling them how to vote. 

Is it working?

via GIPHY

There are some exceptions, but many of the disclosures listed on ads don't really tell us much except, well, keep digging.

That's because ideologically aligned PACs are swapping cash in such a way that the PACs themselves become the top donors disclosed on the ads, rather than the interest groups or wealthy individuals supplying the money. For example, if AstraZeneca and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield are big donors to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee (they are), then an easy way to obscure that is to have the Democratic Campaign Committee give money to the Maine Democratic State Committee and then tell it which races to target with ads. The Maine Democratic State Committee can then purchase the ads -- an attack mailer for example. Then, when the top three donors are listed on the mailer, it's not AstraZeneca or Anthem that appears, it's the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and the other two innocuous sounding PACs funding the Maine Democratic State Committee.

PACs that sound like this:

This is happening all over the place and it's perfectly legal. It also raises questions about whether disclosure requirement is having the unintended effect of making the task of following the money more difficult.

LePage predictions

Gov. Paul LePage appeared on Portland radio station WGAN Friday morning to offer his thoughts and predictions for the election. The governor said his predictions align with a recent mock election in which students picked Trump, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, U.S Rep. Bruce Poliquin and all of the referendum questions except Question 1, which would legalize the sale and use of recreational marijuana for adults.

LePage also defended Trump's refusal to release his tax returns, a practice for presidential candidates for nearly 40 years. Trump critics like to point out that the practice began with President Richard Nixon, which is convenient because they get to say even Tricky Dick released his returns, so why not Trump? But Nixon actually released his tax returns after he was reelected, and interestingly, as a way to deflect from the very real Watergate scandal that consumed and later terminated his presidency.

LePage, by the way, said he didn't see the value in presidential candidates disclosing their finances. 

Descending on the Granite State

Like Maine, New Hampshire only has four electoral votes, but in the closing days before the election, our neighbors are getting bombarded with visits by Trump, Hillary Clinton and President Obama. Trump will be there Friday and again on Monday night. That makes 11 trips to the Granite State for the real estate mogul and TV personality. Clinton has scheduled her fourth visit for Sunday and Obama will be there Monday for the first time since his reelection campaign in 2012.

That's a lot of attention for so few votes, but New Hampshire, like Maine, could have an outsized impact on the race if Clinton and Trump split some of the bigger swing states. In fact, one model featured by Real Clear Politics has Trump winning if he can carry New Hampshire and Maine's 2nd Congressional District. So why isn't Maine getting more attention? Math. Recent polls show Clinton leading statewide, but in a tight race with Trump in the 2nd CD. And the one electoral vote in the 2nd CD will only be decisive if Trump wins NH, which does not divide its electoral votes. It's winner take-all.