Sara Gideon and Susan Collins. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty ; J. Scott Applewhite | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — There’s a long way to go before November 2020, but untrackable money is already playing a role in Maine’s most high-profile political campaign.

“Dark money” groups — organizations that do not have to disclose the unlimited amount of donations they are allowed to receive — are nothing new in Maine. They were an active presence in the 2014 campaign cycle. They spent millions on referendum questions in 2016.

And it wasn’t long before they established a presence in 2019, said Anna Massoglia, a researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics.

“We’ve seen a lot of dark money show up early, especially in the presidential race and some Senate races,” she said. “It’s something that’s not going to let up anytime soon.”

Dark money groups operating as 501(c)(4) nonprofits can engage in political activity shy of endorsing a candidate, like advocating on certain issues and policies. They can’t coordinate with political parties and candidates and are exempt from disclosure requirements.

Maine Momentum — along with their offshoot campaign The 16 Counties Coalition — has been the main nonprofit player in the 2020 cycle, which is likely to see record amounts of money spent on advertising centered on U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ nationally targeted re-election race.

The group, run by Willy Ritch, a former spokesman for Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and Chris Glynn, a former spokesman for the Maine Democratic Party and Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, has focused entirely on Collins, a Republican running in a nationally targeted race with five Democrats — including Gideon — vying for that party’s nomination.

The group has spent over $800,000 in the race so far, according to data from Advertising Analytics. The group also invited Collins to two town-hall style meetings that it billed in a news release as an opportunity to be her “first free, open, and advertised public forums since her first term in office” beginning in 1997.

Ritch said similar events and smaller gatherings will be part of their strategy going forward. He didn’t discuss the group’s funders, but Maine Public reported last month that it partnered with an offshoot of the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a dark-money funder of liberal state grassroots groups. Ritch said most people aren’t focused on those kinds of contributions.

“When we talk to people, they talk about the big corporate donations Collins has received,” he said. “I hear about that far more frequently.” (Of the $26.6 million that Collins’ campaigns have raised since 1995, about $7.2 million came from corporate political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Other groups could exert influence on the 2020 election in other ways. Maine People Before Politics, another nonprofit born out of former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s 2010 inaugural committee, ramped up its activities after a dormant period after LePage left office in January.

It has largely been criticizing Gov. Janet Mills and other Democrats through social media and mounting no official advertising campaign. Spokesperson Julie Rabinowitz said the group hasn’t using methods like TV ads, but it has no plans to buy ads at this time.

“We’re looking at 2020 not as an election year, but we’re messaging around state issues, certain bills and groups of bills,” she said.

A push to put a referendum to bar noncitizens from voting in municipal elections on the 2020 ballot has loose ties to a conservative network pushing similar efforts in other states. In Florida, one associated nonprofit put $8.3 million into a political committee working on the race there. No Maine political committee has formed yet.

Massoglia said dark money groups are most prevalent in places with hotly contested races. Districts with highly vulnerable incumbents “present a lot of opportunities,” she said.

The Federal Election Commission has rules about reporting independent expenditures and contributions, but getting around them is a matter of wordplay, Massoglia said. Dark money groups can skirt them by not calling for a particular candidate’s success or defeat.

For example, Majority Forward, a liberal 501(c)(4) nonprofit, spent over $40 million on advertising in 2018 while not having to disclose their own donors. In Maine, it has spent $110,650 on ads related to the Collins race so far, according to Advertising Analytics.

Nonprofits have been the traditional realm of dark money groups, but Massoglia said the waters have become muddier through the use of limited liability companies, digital ads, social media and sponsorship schemes that allow organizations to appear autonomous at first, but obscure their fiscal sponsor.

One recent ad by Maine Momentum targeting Collins criticizes the incumbent’s support of the 2017 tax cut. The ad — which equated Collins’ actions to an attack on Social Security and Medicare — was recently deemed misleading by The Washington Post’s fact-checker.

“If they were telling the truth, they wouldn’t have to hide behind a curtain of dark money funded by unnamed, out-of-state billionaires,” said Collins campaign spokesman Kevin Kelley.