Maine media attention puts the spotlight on both the presidential and U.S. Senate race this fall. There’s also a lot at stake in the campaigns for 35 seats in our state Senate.

As in 2010, groups both outside and within Maine are attempting to shape the outcome for seats in Maine’s most exclusive political club. More than $1.5 million likely will be spent throughout the state, with average spending by prevailing candidates in each race expected to exceed $20,000, not including ads taken out by independent PACs.

Once upon a time, even $5,000 was a lot of money to spend for a Senate seat in Augusta. Indeed, in 1962, that sum set a record that stood for nearly a decade.

This seemingly lavish outlay was on behalf of Portland Chevron fuel oil dealer Frederick Foley Jr., then running for one of four at-large seats in Cumberland County.

Foley lost, in spite of outspending his seven opponents, in part because he was a Democrat at a time when Cumberland County went prohibitively Republican.

Moreover, straight party voting was then the norm, and even a candidate such as Foley, who could stand out among the crowd, still faced an uphill battle as a minority party contender.

Foley also was running for a seat in a district almost five times larger in population than ones served by senators today. As Maine’s most urban county, Cumberland had eight Senate candidates.

The single-member district system, adopted in 1968, reduced the size of each constituency and with it the cost of running for office. It’s a reason why it took nearly 10 years before Foley’s state Senate spending record was broken.

In the 1972 GOP primary campaign, former House majority leader Harrison Richardson spent more than $8,000 in his quest to represent a suburban district north of Portland. Richardson, who spearheaded enactment of a state income tax three years earlier, earning him the label of one of the party’s more moderate leaders. He bested two opponents, including conservative incumbent Robert E. Moore.

Richardson’s record, however, did not stand long. During the rest of the 1970s and through the 1980s, campaign spending for a state Senate seat often exceeded $10,000.

Alton “Chuck” Cianchette was the first to break the $100,000 barrier in his 1992 campaign to represent the Hampden-Newport Senate district just west of Bangor.

Cianchettte called upon much of the $133,000 he spent that year to win a closely contested Democratic primary over labor activist Ave-Maria Dover. As a conservative Democrat, Cianchette easily outdistanced his GOP opponent in the fall election.

The third-highest state legislative spender that year was a 37-year-old rookie Democrat from North Haven, Chellie Pingree. Her $57,000 successful campaign in a GOP district showed that even before her association with Donald Sussman she had something of a Midas fundraising touch.

In contrast, department store owner Mickey Marden, invested a mere $7,000 in his successful run for the Senate in the Skowhegan-Winslow district that year. It was the multimillionaire’s only foray into partisan public office.

Cianchette’s record stood until 2000, when Bangor Republican Tom Sawyer’s campaign spent $153,000 in defeating Democrat Jane Saxl.

“Why would anyone invest $150,000 for a job paying only $9,000 a year?” Sawyer asked rhetorically.

“If one seeks public office merely as a job, then I suppose such a naïve question does make sense,” Sawyer wrote in a letter defending the magnitude of his pricey crusade.

“If one seeks public office to improve his or her neighbors’ lives and have a say in spending millions of dollars in taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars, the answer is entirely different and totally logical,” said Sawyer, who made his fortune in the trash hauling and landfill business.

The current spending record for a state Senate seat is held by Ellsworth Republican John Linnehan.

In spite of spending $222,000 in 2004, he lost to Democratic incumbent Dennis Damon by a 2-1 margin. That he out-spent Damon by 8-to-1 illustrates the maxim that there’s a ceiling on what money can accomplish.

An automotive dealer, Linnehan said the “best value of the campaign” was $50,000 he spent on a 20-minute DVD profile. Distributed to 21,000 households in the district, the DVD showcased Linnehan’s advocacy of a government spending cap and deregulation of the health insurance industry.

The amount on individual campaign finance reports today does not usually factor in independent expenditures made to either promote or defeat a candidate made by PACs, unions and other organizations.

The current wave of individuals and groups outside the state trying to influence Maine elections has some precedent.

In 1952, an aide to Gov. Frederick Payne approached billionaire Howard Hughes to request $50,000 for Payne’s primary battle against conservative incumbent U.S. Sen. Owen Brewster, a self-financed millionaire and a Hughes nemesis.

Years later, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson disclosed that Hughes helped bring about Brewster’s downfall when the billionaire secretly funneled “a sizable chunk” of the $50,000 requested to the campaign against Brewster.

In the 1950s and l960s, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was an occasional benefactor to Maine Republicans.

Democratic campaigns were sometimes sprinkled with Kennedy family support.

As with today’s independent PACs, the source and magnitude of funding for many candidates also eluded close scrutiny.

The lessons of the past illustrate the mixed message of whether spending alone can determine the outcome of Maine Senate races, even when the source of the funding is, at times, invisible.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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