PORTLAND, Maine — Buoyed by five questions on the November ballot and a failed effort for another, Maine campaigns have brought in $15 million in contributions as of mid-July, nearly double the haul from four years ago.

That was less than $2 million under the same mark in 2014, which was dominated by the high-dollar gubernatorial race that led to Gov. Paul LePage’s second term and led to nearly $39 million in spending on all state races, including for the Maine Legislature.

Even though the Legislature is up for grabs again, Maine may not get back to that mark in 2016, as late spending won’t be as big of a factor because of the more front-loaded signature drives to get those five questions on the ballot.

But we’ve still seen big money, particularly to expand background checks to private gun sales and transfers, plus a failed effort for a York County casino. We’ll see more.

Candidates and committees — especially ballot question committees — raised more than $15.1 million and spent nearly $8.6 million for 2016 state races as of mid-July, according to data from the Maine Ethics Commission.

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Compared with past years, total political fundraising is nearly double what was raised at the same time in 2012, and less than $1.9 million below 2014. So far, spending is on par with both cycles.

But the mix of money is much different: While 2014 was dominated by early gubernatorial spending, this year’s fundraising revolves around the referendum list, which is the most expensive that Maine has ever had.

In order, Mainers will decide on legalizing marijuana, increasing education funding with a new tax on income over $200,000, expanding background checks, increasing the minimum wage, establishing a ranked-choice voting system and a $100 million transportation bond.

Nearly $7 million was raised by those campaigns through mid-July. They spent more than $5.8 million of it, with the next financial reports due to the state in late September.

The influence of political action committees is lower, with $3.7 million raised and $2.8 million spent so far, lower than both 2012 and 2014, even though PACs are the chief backers of the marijuana, ranked-choice voting and education funding campaigns.

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The high-dollar background check campaign has attracted perhaps the most attention for big spending, but another massive effort didn’t make the ballot.

Question 3 on background checks is part of a national effort from Everytown for Gun Safety, a group founded by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Everytown has almost singly funded it to the tune of $3.6 million — including in-kind contributions — since 2015.

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That money went to Mainers for Responsible Gun Ownership, the coalition supporting the effort here, and another group, the Maine Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense Fund. The vast majority of the money has gone to television ads.

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The National Rifle Association is leading opposition to the question, but its effort had barely kicked off by mid-July, by which they spent just under $40,000 — much of it on polling and opposition research. But they’re advertising now, so the September report should show far more activity.

The failed casino effort makes up another large chunk of ballot question spending, at nearly $2.6 million. The hasty and controversial campaign was funded by the sister of Las Vegas developer Shawn Scott, who would be the only beneficiary of the casino license under the proposed law. But it failed to qualify for the ballot and lost a court challenge, leaving its future up in the air.

The main committee pushing for marijuana legalization has spent $306,000, while committees backing the minimum wage referendum have spent $438,000 with only just over $8,000 on opposition spending from a restaurant group. Groups supporting ranked-choice voting have spent $346,000.

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.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...