The Maine State House in Augusta is pictured on May 6, 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Staff at Maine’s campaign finance watchdog are recommending an investigation of a group conducting potentially illegal polling aimed at eroding support for a progressive candidate in a competitive midcoast state Senate district.

A group calling itself Public Opinion Research has polled people in the district represented by Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, who is being challenged by Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, according to a Tuesday report from the Maine Ethics Commission.

The Lincoln County Democratic Committee filed a complaint with the agency about the poll, which appeared to try to push voters away from Maxmin in an online survey by saying she is “in lock step with radical liberals” and wants to bring “burdensome California and New York” policies to Maine after making a favorable statement about Dow.

Polls conducted by campaigns and for media outlets typically ask neutral questions and collect demographic information to properly weigh and tabulate results. The poll differed in both respects. Such polls are often called “push polls,” though that term is narrowly defined under Maine law.

There are different ways the poll could be illegal. Any group advocating for or against a candidate must report expenditures not coordinated with a candidate if the cost exceeds $250, while a group also must register as a political committee if they spend $5,000 or more on a state election. Paid electioneering communications after Labor Day must state who financed them.

A telephone number listed at the end of the online survey leads callers to an automated voice system with no option to speak to a person. Those factors hint toward an illegal poll, wrote Michael Dunn, a political committee registrar for the ethics commission.

Dunn recommended commissioners authorize an investigation — a request that will be considered at a Sept. 30 meeting — though he warned that it would be a complex undertaking that may go past Election Day on Nov. 3.

The same group may be involved in races beyond Maine. A group with the same name conducted push polling in Tennessee, but the ethics commission in that state has received no complaints, according to Dunn’s report. He found a Facebook page for the group that had spent over $100,000 on the presidential campaign, but Dunn said attempts to reach it and another organization listed in disclaimers “have proved unsuccessful.”

Maxmin denounced the polling last week, calling it “manipulative” in a Facebook post saying she rejects “extreme partisanship and division.” A Senate Republican campaign spokesperson said they had not seen the complaint and could not comment on whether the polling was part of party campaigning. Dow said on Friday he had heard of the calls but they were not authorized by his campaign.

The race between Dow, a veteran lawmaker who owns a furniture store, and Maxmin, a climate activist who claimed an open House seat in the 2018 election, is one of the more high-profile Senate contests of 2020 as Republicans look to take back the chamber from Democrats.