PORTLAND, Maine — Outside groups supporting Democrats in Maine’s Legislature are playing offense in the House and defense in the Senate, where they are spending heavily in three races to oppose new challengers.

In a review of independent expenditures in Maine House and Senate races, the Bangor Daily News found outside groups have spent about $386,014 to deflect Republican challengers in the Senate, where incumbent Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick’s District 9 seat, representing Bangor and Hermon, is a top focus.

In total, party and political action committees supporting Democrats running for the Legislature spent almost triple the amount — $1.7 million — of groups supporting Republicans, as of Monday. Outside spending to support Republicans or oppose Democrats totaled $610,000.

The current breakdown of the Senate is 19 Democrats, 15 Republicans and one independent. In the House, it’s 88 Democrats, 57 Republicans and four independents.

While the independent expenditure reports shed light on key legislative races for both parties, the total spending by the groups battling for control of the House and Senate will change day by day as Nov. 4 nears.

Here’s what spending patterns by outside groups show:

Democrats are defending three Senate seats and both parties are pushing hard for two open districts. The open Senate districts 21 and 25 are among the top six for spending by outside Democratic and Republican groups. District 21 is the seat being vacated by veteran Lewiston lawmaker Margaret Craven and 25 is the Yarmouth-area seat where Democrat Catherine Breen and Cathleen Manchester are competing to succeed independent Dick Woodbury, who chose not to seek re-election. Democratic groups are spending heavily to defend the party’s seats in District 30, where Sen. James Boyle represents a group of Portland suburbs; District 9, where Gratwick represents Bangor and Hermon; and District 13, where Sen. Christopher Johnson represents Lincoln County and faces a challenge from Republican Leslie Fossel. Groups supporting Democrats also are pushing to turn District 7, where former legislator Ted Koffman is challenging Republican Sen. Brian Langley to represent towns around Bar Harbor.

Spending in the Senate races is far more negative than the House. The tone of the races for Senate has been much more negative than in the House. About 53 percent of total spending by outside groups in Senate races has been on opposition ads, compared with about 11 percent for House contests. Most of the attack ad spending has been directed at challengers, with 71 percent of the outside dollars spent to oppose them. Incumbents are seeing a fair share of negative ads as well, with $35 of every $100 spent on their races coming in negative ads. That’s compared with about 8 percent of the spending in House races targeting an incumbent with negative ads. Democrats have faced very little opposition spending in the House while 22 Republican challengers have drawn about $65,000 in spending to oppose them.

Outside groups have added about $1 million to publicly funded races. Party and political action committees have spent more than $1 million to support or oppose candidates using public money to run their campaigns. The bulk of that money is going to support Democratic candidates, who make up the vast majority of candidates using the Clean Election system, where participation has taken a hit this year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a part of the system that allowed candidates to receive matching funds for last-minute expenditures by privately financed opponents. Almost $800,000 has supported Democrats using the Clean Election system and about $637,000 has gone to oppose traditionally financed Republicans.

Direct mail remains the mainstay of legislative races. The leading party committees and Political action committees have spent the bulk of their money on direct mail, which could mean that you’ve seen a good deal of political mail coming in or that you’re about to see a lot more. As for how the finance reports line up with what’s happening on the ground, that leads to the next point.

A lot remains untold. While spending so far shows groups supporting Democrats far ahead, this week will see total spending ratchet up to new levels. Add to that: Previous reports may not reflect what actually gets spent. PACs and party committees can report financial commitments as soon as they think they’re going to spend for whatever it might be — a mailer, etc. Especially with direct mail, there can be a lot of variables factoring into whether a piece of mail actually makes it to voters’ doorsteps. In that way, it’s helpful to note that campaign and independent expenditure reports might not fully reflect what’s actually happening on the ground.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.