Fewer candidates for the Maine Legislature are running publicly financed campaigns this year under the state’s newly amended, and less generous, Clean Election Act.
Unlike in past years, candidates who run with clean election funding this year won’t be able to get additional public funding if their privately funded opponents outspend them.
At least 38 percent of the 438 legislative candidates this year will be running privately financed campaigns, according to new state data, and the percentage is expected to increase. That compares to 30 percent in 2010.
Candidates who want clean election funding were required to file qualification papers last week with the Maine Ethics Commission. The commission was still reviewing the papers Monday and won’t have final numbers until later this week, said Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the commission.
A total of 272 candidates — 62 percent — declared their intention to run a clean election campaign this year, although some did not follow through and some may not qualify.
A total of 438 candidates are registered to run for the 151 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 in the Senate, according to the Ethics Commission.
The shift toward private financing shows how changes in the law have made public financing less appealing to candidates, experts said. But the numbers also show that clean elections financing still works for many, if not most, candidates.
“I’m not surprised to see a decrease in the number of candidate using clean election funds,” said Amy Fried, politicval science professor at the University of Maine. “But using it still has certain advantages.”
Clean election candidates, for example, don’t have to spend their time or resources raising money, she said. But they have to weigh the risk of running up against a well-heeled opponent who dramatically outspends them in the final weeks of an election.
“Probably most races will still be fairly low-cost. But you don’t necessarily know if certain groups will come in, maybe out-of-state groups, and contribute to your opponent,” Fried said.
The Republican-led Maine Legislature eliminated matching funds from the Clean Elections Act with a new law signed by Gov. Paul LePage in March. Maine was forced to change its law after a Supreme Court ruling last year that clean election matching money was unconstitutional.
Democrats argued for a different mechanism allowing candidates to compete against wealthier opponents, saying the Clean Election Act has successfully reduced the influence of big money in Maine politics.
Republicans, however, said the law and the matching funds provision amounted to welfare for politicians at the taxpayers’ expense.
To qualify for clean election funding, a candidate needed to raise a certain number of donations of $5 or more from registered voters — seed money — by last Friday. House candidates needed 60 contributions and Senate candidates needed 175.
Once candidates prove they have the seed money, they can receive a set amount of money for the primary, as much as $7,359 for Senate candidates and $1,429 for House candidates. Those who win their primaries can get another installment for the general elction — as much as $18,124 for Senate candidates and $3,937 for House candidates. Candidates in uncontested races get much smaller amounts of funding.
Once candidates take clean election money, they cannot use private donations to supplement the public money.
Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine Republican Party, said he used to advise most GOP candidates to apply for clean election funding even though many in the party didn’t agree with the law.
“I think the reason people did clean election (financing) in the past is it put people at a big disadvantage if you didn’t,” Webster said. “If you didn’t do it before and your opponent did, then you’d have to go out really hard to raise the $5,000 (given to House candidates).”
And if a canddiate worked really hard and raised more than his or her clean election opponent, the opponent would be able to get more public financing to stay competitive, he said.
The risks have shifted now that matching money won’t be available. “When the Supreme Court changed the rules, it changed the way these decisions are being made,” he said.
This year, Webster’s advice to candidates is more mixed. Candidates with enough personal money to finance a campaign are now more likely to use private money, while incumbents who feel more secure about re-election are the most likely to use public financing, he said.
The state Democratic Party, meanwhile, is still encouraging candidates to use clean election financing because the party believes in the ideals behind the law, said Lizzy Reinholt, spokeswoman for the party.
“There are a lot of candidates discouraged by the changes that happened and that a really successful, well-run program was gutted.” But, Reinholt said, “we are full supporters of clean elections. We like the idea of keeping outside influences out of politics where possible.”
John Richardson — 791-6324