A voter steps out of the voting booth after he filled out his ballot at the Brewer Auditorium, Nov. 7, 2017. Credit: Gabor Degre

The progressive group that spent more than $190 million in the 2016 election is using a unique social media tactic to influence the Maine race for governor.

Priorities Action USA typically spends on federal contests, but it has bought digital ads boosting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills, according to publicly disclosed data posted on Facebook. Mills is in a four-way contest with Republican Shawn Moody and independents Terry Hayes and Alan Caron.

The ads appear as communications from a Facebook page called Maine Matters, but are actually paid for by the Priorities Action USA political action committee. According to officials from the Maine Ethics Commission, Priorities Action has registered as a political action committee and will report more than $490,000 in election communications in reports that are due at the end of Friday.

According to its Facebook page, Maine Matters describes itself as “celebrating everything that’s wonderful about this beautiful state” and “shining a light on the individuals who make Maine special and working towards a better future for all.”

The group’s electioneering ambitions are not obvious from that description. However, Maine Matters is one of several Facebook groups that Priorities Action USA is using to build lists of supporters that can then be targeted by explicit political advertising.

The tactic is detailed by the Daily Beast newsletter Pay Dirt. In a post published Thursday, the newsletter reported that at least five Facebook pages operated by progressive PACs are using clickbait sites on social media sites like Facebook to build audiences that will eventually receive election communications.

One of the sites, Here For This, describes itself as a reprieve from today’s political atmosphere. “Things are bad, we get it,” the “about us” section of the page reads. “We’re here for all the folks mixing it up a bit in the world.”

Its posts includes a smattering of news stories that touch on hot button political issues such as student debt. It also includes viral videos, including one of a man who adopted 45 dogs and then set them free on his property. The dog video post includes a statement likely to appeal to left-leaning viewers: “This will cheer you up if you think the country is a mess right now,” the post reads.

So far, the Maine Matters site is less active on the clickbait front than some of its counterparts in Florida and Missouri. Its one post features a news story about a Maine company that uses 3D printers to make women’s shoes.

“These shoes will be 3D printed right here in Maine. What do you think — fashion-forward or fashion nightmare?” Maine Matters asks.

Facebook ad disclosures show that Maine Matters has promoted at least a dozen political ads designed to boost Mills’ candidacy since Aug. 31. Publicly available ad targeting analytics show that several of the ads target women viewers. Women voters are expected to play a key role in the upcoming election.

Using inconspicuous political content to build political audiences appears to be a novel approach to digital political advertising. The latter is already largely unregulated because of patchwork campaign finance laws that have struggled to keep pace with the ways political groups use social media to influence elections.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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