In this Oct. 23, 2017, file photo, the State House is surrounded by fall foliage in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — A poll that criticized a Democratic candidate for the Maine Senate in a competitive midcoast district was paid for by Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, the state’s campaign finance watchdog said this week.

A round of polling against Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, who is opposing Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, drew a complaint from the Lincoln County Democratic Committee in September. The Maine Ethics Commission unanimously voted to investigate the polling days later in the highest-profile ethics case of the 2020 legislative elections.

The polling may not be illegal on its own. Commission staff have said it may have violated disclosure laws because it did not identify who authorized it — which is required after Labor Day — and the expenditure was not reported promptly to the agency. Both of those laws contain an exception for political polling that is not aimed at trying to influence voters, however.

One online survey cited in the complaint appeared to try to push voters from Maxmin 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.

In a Monday update on the case, Jonathan Wayne, the executive director of the ethics commission, said the Maine Senate Republican Majority PAC and the Maine Prosperity Alliance, two groups tied to Republican leaders, paid a consulting firm just over $53,000 in total for surveying that included the Maxmin poll.

Wayne wrote that he guessed the work may have been done by subcontractors for Red Maverick Media, the consulting firm. Shawn Roderick, an aide to Senate Republicans who is running their 2020 campaign effort through the two political committees, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But Wayne said that Roderick and Republican attorney Josh Tardy told him the polling was consistent with typical polling done to gauge enthusiasm for candidates, according to the report. They reported receiving 13 pages of tabulated results, which would indicate that the Republicans were using it to get data and not simply trying to influence voters.

Wayne said Tardy expressed resistance to turning their tabulation information over to the commission, saying it contained sensitive information and “hinted” doing so could result in the Senate Republicans filing their own complaint against Democrats for similar polling activities.

Commissioners are expected to discuss the case again at a Friday meeting, where they could authorize staff to investigate the issue further or engage polling experts to determine whether the survey met the state’s neutral polling standard.

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