AUGUSTA, Maine — Recent financial disclosures about the three major candidates for governor showed that each has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, but those numbers tell only part of the story about spending that can be expected for the 2014 election.

How close the candidates’ filings come to representing the full picture of spending on the race for the Blaine House — as well as Maine House and Senate elections — may never be known, thanks to a flow of “dark money” into Maine that some say has grown into a river. The term “dark money” refers to donations to nonprofit political advocacy groups to which campaign disclosure laws do not apply.

“There has definitely been more money being directed at groups in Maine and more money at traditional candidates,” said Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. “This is kind of a new national normal.”

This “new national normal” doesn’t mean contributions are being diverted from traditional campaigns; it means more money is entering each new election cycle.

Brent Littlefield, a political adviser for Gov. Paul LePage, said the increasing flow of dark money has had no effect on traditional political fundraising.

“I’ve seen no evidence of that,” he said. “I have not found any reticence from anyone, not one single instance yet, to have their name appear on the governor’s official fundraising lists.”

David Farmer, who writes a political column for the BDN and served as a spokesman for former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, said most people or organizations that can afford to donate to issues organizations probably also give to individual candidates. According to Maine law, donors can give individual candidates for governor a maximum of $1,500 for a general election campaign and $1,500 for a primary election campaign.

“Fifteen hundred dollars, that’s not the big donor set,” said Farmer. “The really large donors are the folks who are already heavily engaged. They’re already supporting the national party organizations, the state parties and all the various organizations.”

The organizations benefitting from dark money range from political powerhouses that have existed for decades, such as the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, to smaller, newer groups such as Maine People Before Politics, which grew from LePage’s transition team in 2011 and continues to lobby and advertise on behalf of policies that align with his. Representatives from both of those group refused to detail the full picture of where their money comes from.

“Most of our contributions come from small dollar amounts from our more than 30,000 members,” said Mike Tipping, a Maine People’s Alliance spokesman who is also a political blogger for the Bangor Daily News. Asked to what degree the state’s public-sector labor unions support the MPA, as claimed by Republican campaign strategists, Tipping said, “I don’t want to get into specifics of our budget. The majority of our contributors are small-dollar contributors.”

Tipping said the MPA, which advocates for a range of liberal issues, is different from Maine People Before Politics, which he sees as being built for the sole purpose of supporting LePage — largely with corporate money.

“They’re closely identified with him,” said Tipping, who blogged on the topic in April. “His campaign slogan is their name. … They don’t say, ‘Vote for Paul LePage,’ but everything else is the same.”

Littlefield is one of the founders of Maine People Before Politics. He said groups like his are relatively new on the state’s political landscape and that they have sprung up to counter spending by organizations such as the Maine People’s Alliance, which he said benefits from a steady stream of labor union money that costs almost nothing to raise.

“They’ve always been able to take union money from the salaries of union employees and profits from insurance funds and put them into political action,” said Littlefield. “That’s a huge amount of money that they don’t have to go out and raise. … If you look at the MPA and look at the Maine Democratic Party, all of those entities are taking money from the same source and that’s the labor unions.”

Laws that regulate financial contributions in politics require individual candidates and political action committees to report who gives them money and how it is spent. The idea behind those laws is that voters have a right to know who is writing checks and what influence that money might have on successful candidates once they’re in office. But a 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 that is widely known as the “Citizens United” decision said that corporations and labor unions are free to donate unlimited amounts of cash that can be spent on advertisements and other electioneering for or against a given candidate or issue. That cash is often funnelled through nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations such as Maine People Before Politics and the Maine People’s Alliance, which aren’t required to make their donor lists public.

Groups from both political parties have used dark money for ad buys recently in Maine.

In June, shortly after the Legislature approved a biennial budget compromise that was eventually defeated by LePage, Maine People Before Politics bought a television advertisement pressuring lawmakers to oppose tax increases in the rewritten budget bill. The ad campaign was estimated to have cost up to $35,000 statewide. Two months earlier, the same group aired television advertisements in support of LePage’s plan to pay Maine hospitals $484 million in past Medicaid debt to hospitals. The group accompanied the advertisement with a post on its Facebook page that fell just short of advocating directly for LePage, which would be illegal under Maine campaign finance laws.

“It is important to keep the economy moving supporting efforts like those of Governor LePage which have lowered Maine’s unemployment rate,” read the post.

A national group called America Works USA, a 501(c)(4) associated with the Democratic Governor’s Association, responded a week later with an $80,000 ad buy urging legislative Republicans to override LePage’s veto.

There are plenty of advocacy groups that publish their lists of donors, such as Maine Conservation Voters, which supports public health initiatives that promote clean air and water, among other things.

“You don’t know where that money comes from or what those interests are for,” said Maureen Drouin, the organization’s executive director. “Are they for the public interest or are they getting around the laws that protect us? … I think some groups are continuing to push the envelope to see how much they can get away with in terms of secrecy.”

Farmer, who continues to work for Democratic candidates and causes, agreed.

“In a post-Citizens United world, you just have money floating around in a lot of new ways,” said Farmer. “I think we saw a taste of it in the Senate race last year when former Gov. [Angus] King ran for the U.S. Senate. There was a lot more aggressive advertising than what we’ve seen in the past, with lots of money put in by outside groups.”

Schmidt, the USM assistant professor, said that so far there has been little backlash from voters over the use of dark money in Maine.

“Mainers are a little less sensitive about the idea of outside groups and even national political parties trying to weigh in on state politics,” he said. “I think Mainers are a little less automatically appalled by that kind of thing. My sense in terms of national contributions is that Maine is falling in line more with what is happening in other states.”

In 1996, Maine established the publicly supported clean election system through a citizen-initiated referendum which supporters said would drive special interest money out of Maine politics. There’s a stark divide between those who think it’s working and those who don’t.

“The very term, clean election, is just a really bogus term,” said Littlefield. “It’s people pretending to be doing good when actually what they are doing is selling the taxpayers down the river to pay for politicians.”

The system has been weakened in recent years, including a provision in the just-passed biennial budget that eliminated clean election funding for gubernatorial candidates. A group called Maine Citizens for Clean Elections announced last week that it is trying to counter that change with a petition drive to strengthen the clean elections system, including funding it with a 15 percent surcharge on all fines and penalties levied by any state agency.

Vic Berardelli, a longtime Republican operative from Newburgh who is a member of the Republican State Committee, said the premise of the clean elections system is flawed because it tries to stifle political free speech that comes in the form of campaign contributions.

“Every time these so-called progressive groups take a position on dark money, they take on corporate speech but say nothing about unions,” he said. “We’ve either got to ban money from the unions or let the corporations have a voice. Corporations invest in communities, they create jobs and they have as much a right to discuss the issues of governments and non-governmental organizations. … You are basically controlling the political process if you deny any organization or individual to speak about issues of concern.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.