Sen. Susan Collins’ reelection this November followed a costly and grueling campaign unlike anything seen before in Maine politics. That sort of massive campaign may not be the new normal, but the state could see similar races as political spending nationwide continues to surge.
The race between Collins and Democratic nominee Sara Gideon, which also included independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn, shattered state spending records, with more than $200 million flowing into Maine through the candidates and outside groups, nine times more than any other political contest in the state’s history.
That record fundraising, and the near-nonstop TV ads that came with it, reflected several factors unique to Maine and 2020. But it also came amid a national trend of more money in politics that could portend future competitive races here.
“Anytime that you’ve got a race where each major party thinks they can win, then that at least sets up the possibility of huge amounts of money coming in,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine.
Candidates and outside groups in Maine’s 2020 Senate race collectively brought in $218 million, according to federal data. That unprecedented sum followed “unusual circumstances,” said James Melcher, a political science professor at the University of Maine-Farmington. He pointed to early fundraising in response to Collins’ vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and both parties’ view that Maine could determine partisan control of the Senate.
The second-most expensive contest in state history, the 2018 congressional race between now U.S.-Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, and then-incumbent Rep. Bruce Poliquin, brought in about $23 million. That race was also a close congressional contest in a year when control of the House was on the line.
Other recent Senate races in Maine have not been particularly competitive, Melcher noted. The last few gubernatorial elections have been closer, but do not tend to attract as much national attention. He predicted that a competitive election for governor in 2022, though costly, would not approach anywhere near the spending levels of this year’s Senate race.
Congressional races, however, have become increasingly nationalized — and more expensive — over the past few decades. No Senate race had exceeded $100 million in spending until a North Carolina race did in 2014. Nine of the 10 most expensive Senate races ever happened this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Maine’s 2020 race ranks seventh all-time.
That does not mean all future Senate races in Maine will mirror this year’s contest. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, coasted to victory two years ago in a race that saw just $8.4 million.
If King runs for reelection again in 2024, the race might not attract much money, Brewer and Melcher both said, because the independent remains among the most popular political figures here. But if the 76-year-old senator does not run for another term, that could set up another costly race if both parties see the seat as a possible pickup.
More money does not guarantee either side a victory. Gideon fell short despite raising more than twice what Collins did. Her campaign also ended with $14 million still left in the bank.
“I think we have to learn from this election cycle in Maine, and everywhere else, that money doesn’t control everything,” said Betsy Sweet, a progressive lobbyist who ran against Gideon in the Democratic primary.
Sweet, who argues Democrats need to focus more on tangible issues, wondered if spending more than $100 million in a state with fewer than one million voters backfired, annoying potential voters rather than persuading them. But the lesson for both parties would likely be to spend money differently — not spend less of it, Brewer said.
“If history tells us anything, it’s that campaign spending continues to go up, so no one is going to look at this race and say, ‘Oh, too much money was spent,’” Brewer said. “That’s not the lesson they’re going to learn. They’re going to say, ‘Well, the money wasn’t spent appropriately. How do we better use the resources to do better the next go round?’”