In this May 29, 2018, file photo George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations listens to the conference after his speech entitled "How to save the European Union" as he attends the European Council On Foreign Relations Annual Council Meeting in Paris. Credit: Francois Mori / AP

A Democratic megadonor is spending an unprecedented sum to oust the Cumberland County district attorney as part of a national effort to elect progressive prosecutors.

Since 2010, only $464,000 has been spent by all Maine district attorney campaigns. The outside spending in this one already accounts for more than any of those races to date ahead of the Democratic primary in June between incumbent Jonathan Sahrbeck and challenger Jackie Sartoris. No other candidates are running in November, making this the deciding election.

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District attorney races in Maine rarely get a high level of attention or campaign spending, despite the position holding a significant amount of power in being able to set local criminal justice policies. It could tip a race that has seen comparatively little spending from the candidates and has been largely defined by differences in how they see the office’s role.

Nearly $173,000 in spending has come in the last week from the Maine Justice & Public Safety PAC. That is just under half of the $300,000 the political action committee has received in contributions from a national political group funded by billionaire George Soros, who recently poured $125 million into a group backing Democratic candidates and causes in 2022.

Sahrbeck dinged the spending in a Tuesday press statement, calling it “outrageous” and calling for Sartoris to denounce the attack ads against him immediately.

“Folks in Cumberland County should be disgusted by this attempt to buy this race,” he said.

The attack lines used against Sahrbeck go back to his history in the office. A former assistant to Republican district attorney Stephanie Anderson who lives in Portland, he won his first campaign as an unopposed independent in 2018 after the Republican and Democratic candidates exited the race.

He has since enrolled with the Democrats, saying he generally aligns with them. Sartoris is a former Democratic legislative candidate from Brunswick. One attack ad by the group notes he only joined the party recently as criticized his prosecution of a sex trafficking victim in a 2018 case that was resolved without the person having a criminal record.

Soros has backed major efforts to elect progressive prosecutors with aggressive agendas in recent years. It has turned him into even more of a bogeyman figure in Republican circles, with one conservative group calling him an “archvillain” in a January report flagging two dozen district attorneys who were helped by his organizations.

The Soros-linked group in Maine has paid a marketing firm for digital advertising and mailers. Prior to the ads running, the group dropped more than $56,000 on polling and research. Sartoris has only raised $11,000 in the race so far, including $1,900 of her own funding, to Sahrbeck’s $4,185, which has all come from a transfer from a previous campaign.

Sartoris said she first became aware of the outside involvement a few weeks ago when she was alerted to a poll that she thought was being run by a group supporting Sahrbeck. She said she has not been in contact with the PAC — which would be illegal — and did not support its work.

“Obviously we were shocked and surprised to open our mailboxes and discover these mailings,” she said.

Sahrbeck has pitched himself as a “practical progressive.” At a May 10 candidates’ forum hosted by the Portland Center for Restorative Justice, he characterized his job as being active in addressing root causes of crime, such as housing and addiction challenges, by talking with community members directly.

Sartoris, who has four years of experience as a prosecutor in Kennebec County, has styled herself as a more policy-focused candidate. She has called for more transparency around how decisions are made on prosecutions and revamping the county’s approach to fine-based violations by allowing for dismissals of minor infractions like outdated car registrations if a person is unable to afford them, as long as the person tries to fix the problem.

While not supportive of the outside group’s work, Sartoris said it was a positive sign that outside attention was being paid to district attorney races, because it shows the importance they can have on people’s lives. She said she will continue to focus on the issues and the volunteer work being done in her campaign.

“If you’re upset about a glossy mailer, it’s not from us,” she said.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.