Employee union votes or the cost of war?

These are issues that political operatives hope will help sway Maine voters to cast their ballots for either Tom Allen or Susan Collins in the state’s U.S. Senate election in November.

But you won’t hear either candidate in advertisements on these issues that, as Election Day approaches, have been broadcast with increasing frequency over Maine’s public airwaves. In fact, each of the candidates has disavowed any involvement or endorsement of these negative ads, even though they may end up benefiting from them. That’s because these ads have been created and paid for by third parties, which have an interest in but, by law, no direct connection with either candidate’s campaign.

Allen, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Collins, the Republican incumbent representing Maine in the U.S. Senate, each have responded to ads attacking his or her record by seeking to put the other candidate on the spot. Each campaign has said the other side has not done enough to keep negative, third-party ads off the airwaves and should do more to make sure the election dialogue is accurate and focused on the issues.

The presence of such ads in the race, and the efforts by each targeted candidate to turn the tables by dragging the opponent into the confrontation, shows either one of two things, according to Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. It means the race is close or that it could become close. The ads could be aimed at protecting a candidate’s lead in the polls or they could be intended to whittle it down, he said Monday.

“People don’t see the race as a done deal,” Brewer said.

Polls have shown that Collins holds a lead of approximately 10 percentage points, he said. Whether that estimate changes and how it changes, he said, could determine whether more third-party ads appear in Maine or they disappear as the election nears.

Not all third-party ads that have appeared in the race have been negative, but they frequently are, especially when they come from outside groups, according to Brewer. Ads from entities such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has direct ties to elected Democrats in the Senate, are often — but not always — more positive, promoting a candidate rather than undermining his or her opponent, he said.

But just this week, the committee began airing an ad in Maine criticizing Collins’ support of the Iraq war.

Brewer doesn’t think negativity is necessarily a negative when it comes to an informed electorate. Political advertisements of all stripes should be perused as carefully as any objective media report about the issue that is being aired, he said.

“I think it’s part of the political learning process for citizens,” Brewer said. “I think they need to look at that stuff critically.”

Sandy Maisel, government professor and director of the Goldfarb Center at Colby College in Waterville, disagrees. Negative ads may be effective, he said, but he doesn’t think they should have any place in election dialogues.

“I don’t think voters are well served [by negative third-party ads] at all,” he said. “They’re full of half-truths, arguing by innuendo.”

Maisel said Collins has been polling about 10 points ahead of Allen — a lead she theoretically could lose. But neither candidate wants to engage directly in negative campaigning, he said, which is why the outside groups are stepping in.

“That can be turned in eight weeks,” Maisel said of Collins’ advantage in the polls. “That can be turned in two days with the right ‘bad’ message.”

Allen, when asked recently about the issue of third-party advertising, said the number of such ads that have been broadcast indicates there is national interest in the race. If the Democrats can control 60 seats in the Senate, he said, they could prevent Republicans from blocking bills with filibusters.

“What these ads reflect is that this is a very competitive race for a U.S. Senate seat,” Allen said. “It matters a great deal to Maine but it also matters to people all across this country who care about turning the country in a different direction.”

Allen said the ads seen in Maine are similar to ads that have run in other states this summer.

“This happens in states where you have competitive races — New Hampshire, Colorado. When we were out in Denver [at the Democratic National Convention], the attack ads on both sides … You couldn’t turn on the television without seeing all these third-party ads, most of them negative,” Allen said.

Collins said Wednesday that she would prefer not to have any third-party ads involved in the race, regardless of whether they are negative or otherwise.

“I don’t think they provide a real useful service,” Collins said. “I think it better serves the people of Maine if they are able to judge Tom and me on our records and our messages.”

Often, especially when the balance of parties in the government will be decided on Election Day, third-party groups target Maine because it is a cheaper media market than other states, Collins said. Less money can be spent in Maine to influence the outcome of a Senate campaign than can be spent in larger media markets such as Seattle or Denver, she said. It’s even cheaper to buy advertising in Maine’s 2nd District, where many pundits think the race will be decided, than it is in Portland.

“That’s the attraction,” she said. “They clearly hope to influence the race or they wouldn’t be spending the money.”

Besides the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a group called VoteVets.org also has aired ads in Maine criticizing Collins’ support of the Iraq war. VoteVets.org is affiliated with MoveOn.org, a group that has openly supported Allen’s Senate bid.

The VoteVets.org ad claims that though almost $2 billion in Maine tax dollars has been spent on the Iraq war and that “we’re paying more than $4 a gallon at the pump,” the Iraqi government has pocketed $78 billion in oil profits. Moreover, Collins “stood by and let all this happen — and still is,” the ad narrator says.

“Call Susan Collins. Tell her we want our money back,” the ad concludes.

Though diesel prices in Maine remain higher than $4 a gallon, gasoline prices throughout most of the state have been less than $4 a gallon for several weeks. But what the Collins campaign has objected to the most is the ad’s claims about her record. Rather than standing by, they have said, Collins has worked with Democrats in the Senate in an effort to redefine the role of the American military in Iraq and to make the Iraqi government pick up more of the cost of the war.

“The ad … ignores Senator Collins’ efforts to change the mission in Iraq and to force the Iraqis to pay more of the costs of securing and rebuilding their own country,” the Collins campaign indicated in a prepared response.

Bipartisan legislation co-written by Collins would prohibit American tax dollars from being spent on major re-construction projects in Iraq, according to Collins’ campaign, and would make Iraqi government pay more of the operating costs of the Iraqi security forces and for the fuel used by U.S. troops in Iraq.

In Allen’s case, recent critical ads from the Employee Freedom Action Committee and Coalition for Democratic Workplace are similar to ads that the Employee Freedom Action Committee put out in June. The ads claim that Allen is wrong to support the Employee Free Choice Act because the act would take away employees’ rights to a ballot vote when deciding whether to unionize.

One ad features an actor who played a mob boss in the HBO series “The Sopranos” who seems interested in controlling the outcome of union elections. Another suggests that “union bosses and their politician friends” want to do away with privacy when workers vote on whether to join a union, and that this could lead to workplace intimidation.

“Call Tom Allen. Tell him he’s wrong to end worker privacy,” one of the ads says.

The Allen campaign has complained that these ads are misleading. The act simply would give the workers the right to form a union without having to hold a private election, Allen campaign workers have said.

“I voted for EFCA and was proud to do so,” Allen said at an appearance in Portland last month. “Just to be clear: It does not eliminate a secret ballot but simply creates an alternative procedure for working people to organize for better benefits and pay. Under the current laws, the employers decide when and if an election can be held. They often delay those elections for years and in many cases the election is never held at all.”

In response to the ads criticizing Allen’s support of the Employee Free Choice Act, Collins has been targeted in an ad from American Rights at Work. The ad does not mention Tom Allen, but it indicates that the Employee Free Choice Act will help workers get better wages, retirement benefits and health care coverage.

“Call Senator Susan Collins. Tell her to support the Employee Free Choice Act and stop siding with wealthy CEOs over working families,” the narrator in the ad says.

Whether such ads are helpful to voters, Allen said, depends on the ad.

“You’ve got very different ads of different kinds,” he said. “You can’t lump them all together. Some of them are positive, some are not so positive. Some are factual, some are not factual. They’re just all over the lot.”

Voters simply have to do the best they can to sort through how accurate third-party ads are, he said.

“I’m running, I believe, a very positive campaign,” Allen said. “I’m talking about the issues … I think that anytime we’re talking about other stuff, we’re losing our capacity to deal with the issues that matter most to the people of Maine.”

Collins predicted there would be more negative ads about her broadcast in Maine as Election Day nears, but said she thinks voters will see through them. Because Maine is a relatively small state, she said, it is easier for voters to have direct contact with the candidates and therefore easier for them to keep track of which political claims are more misleading than others. It’s what she and Allen say about the issues, she said, that will determine the outcome of the race.

“I think the people of Maine are smart enough to sort fact from fiction,” Collins said. “I think, in the end, that’s what people are going to base their decisions on, not the third-party ads.”

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....