By Tom Lamia
In order to keep up with events here in Maine I read one of the major statewide newspapers, The Portland Press Herald, where I find a full range of news affecting residents of the state. I also read my local weekly, The Lincoln County News, in which the character and exploits of my neighbors in Damariscotta, Boothbay, Waldoboro, Bristol and Wiscasset are given full coverage. This is where the good and bad news that I might reliably judge from personal knowledge is found. The Portland paper presents a different challenge. Its daily publication and statewide coverage give it more heft and perceived impact on the important stuff, such as politics, but the events and persons involved are seldom known to me. I am informed at a distance. Although I am familiar with the names and places, like all regular readers, I am not close enough to the individuals and events reported on to read between the lines and assess the personal dimension of the news.
In my weekly local paper the stories are about my neighbors, their children, their businesses, their dogs, geese, chickens and goats, so these stories generally raise my spirits, if there is good news, and cause an immediate “oh, no!” moment if the news is bad. When a South Bristol student makes the dean’s list at any college or institute, it is in the paper. When a horrible accident takes the life of a young person it is front-page news. The comic dimensions of stupid mistakes that result in embarrassing situations are fully reported, with photos. This is news of a community of individuals and businesses that I know to be careful about their reputations for honesty and fair dealing. A single misstep can do a lifetime of irreparable damage to a reputation. A recent example: a local lawyer of otherwise good reputation “borrowed” a small amount of client funds intending to repay. When his breach of trust was discovered it was fully reported. A similar situation in Portland or Bangor would be thought too minor for major press coverage and only the state bar association would be concerned. These are examples of the law of inverse concern. The smaller the context the greater is the risk of damaging reputational consequences.
The burr under my saddle that prompts these thoughts is a recent news report that Sara Gideon, defeated Democratic candidate in the November 2020 Maine U.S. Senate election, is sitting on unspent campaign funds of more than $10 million. This remnant was even greater, $14 million, on Election Day, but charitable contributions and possibly tag end campaign expenses have brought it down.
For context, consider that Gideon raised about $74.5 million for her campaign and spent about $63 million, while her opponent, Republican Senator Susan Collins raised about $30 million and spent about $29.6 million. Together, these two candidates raised more than $104 million, seven and one half times the total amount raised by any two candidates running for a U.S. Senate seat from Maine in the state’s history. Collins spent what she raised, Gideon did not. Angus King, Maine’s junior senator spent $3 million in 2012 and $5 million in 2018 to win both races.
This dramatic increase in fundraising was, no doubt, the result of a battle for control of the Senate in a presidential election year. But that does not account for the major disparity in expenses between the two campaigns, nor does it explain Gideon’s nearly $15 million in leftover funds. Gideon lost the race by 51% to 42%, while her fellow Democrats running for Maine’s two Congressional seats both won and the Republican presidential candidate, Trump, lost to the Democrat, Biden, by 10 points. How can Gideon’s performance in either votes or money raised and spent be rationalized? Collins’ vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for a Supreme Court seat was unpopular in Maine and that could account for the contributions to Gideon that poured in from hopeful Democrats. It may be simply that Collins was a four-term incumbent, a Maine native and a champion of Maine industry, while Gideon was from away.
A most perplexing question is why I only came across these election funding issues a few weeks ago when articles in political journals, Roll Call, The Intercept, Open Secrets, and others brought them to my attention. If there were a community newspaper in Sara Gideon’s town of residence, Freeport, I suspect that all this would have been reported earlier. But there is no local community newspaper in Freeport.
Gideon has the legal right to direct the surplus funds to people and causes of her choosing or to hold onto them without time limit. Whatever else one may wish to call it, this trove is a slush fund.
A further irritating fact is that Federal Election Commission reports show that the Gideon campaign put out an emergency call for funds just weeks from election day and took in $6.5 million additional dollars, $2.5 million of which came from small donors giving $200 or less per contribution. This unseemly haul came while the campaign was sitting on cash already greater than what she would spend in those last weeks. If she needed these additional funds for ads that would run in the last days of the campaign (as her campaign suggested) why did she not use them? Certainly she did need to do something more, as she lost the election by a large margin.
Now she sits on this pile of leftover cash for which she has nearly unlimited spending discretion. Of course, she could return it to her donors.