A federal judge sided Friday with four supporters of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler who sued the state last month over campaign contribution limits for non-party candidates.

Under Maine law, party candidates can draw $1,500 contributions from each donor for the June primary as well as the general election even if the candidates don’t face a primary challenger. Neither of Cutler’s opponents, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud, had a primary challenger, yet each can still collect $3,000 per contributor for two elections, while Cutler’s campaign maxes out at $1,500 per donor.

Four plaintiffs – Amy Woodhouse, Richard Tobey Scott, William Hastings and J. Thomas Franklin – sued the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, contending that the law unfairly benefits major party candidates.

The 18-page ruling by U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby granted a preliminary injunction that allows Cutler supporters to contribute a maximum of $3,000 instead of $1,500.

“It is tempting to look at this dispute solely through the eyes of the candidates in the election for governor and to debate whether independent candidates have greater headwinds in getting public recognition of their campaigns or whether party candidates have greater headwinds because they must survive a primary,” Hornby wrote in the ruling released Friday. “In any event, I am dealing not with a candidate’s claim, but a contributor’s claim, and a contribution dispute is different. I am deciding only the rights of individuals who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights to support their independent candidate for governor.

“I do not lightly find a state statute unconstitutional. But these four Maine residents have shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that in this election they have suffered unconstitutional discrimination as compared to contributors to party candidates. I conclude that the plaintiffs have satisfied the test for a preliminary injunction.”

Amy Woodhouse, the lead plaintiff, said she was excited by the ruling and “can’t wait to write a check” to Cutler’s campaign.

“We were hoping this is how it would turn out but you never know,” she said. “It seemed clear to me that the law made no sense.”

The state could appeal Hornby’s ruling.

University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer wasn’t surprised by the ruling and he’s always wondered why the provision wasn’t challenged sooner.

“That said, I don’t know that this will affect the (governor’s) race,” he said. “Where this is more important is the precedent it sets.”

In a statement issued through his campaign office, Cutler hailed the ruling as a victory for Maine people.

“This ruling eliminates a longstanding fundraising advantage party candidates had over non-party candidates,” Cutler said. “I am grateful to the citizens who stepped forward to challenge the law and am pleased that Judge Hornby saw the merits of their case.”

Michaud campaign manager Matt McTighe issued a statement that said he doesn’t think the ruling will have a significant impact on the race.

“This election will not be decided by the small handful of Mainers who can afford to give the maximum amount, but rather by the tens of thousands of grassroots supporters and volunteers who have been the driving force in Mike’s rising poll numbers since he entered the race last year,” he said.

The Michaud campaign also suggested that the ruling should allow all campaigns to collect a maximum of $3,000 for the general election, although that claim is not clear.

LePage’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

This provision of campaign finance law has never been challenged in Maine. Before this year, there had never been an uncontested gubernatorial primary in the state.

Friday’s ruling follows a precedent set earlier this year in Colorado. In January, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a Colorado law that allowed Democratic and Republican candidates to collect $400 per donor, but limited unenrolled candidates to $200.

Cutler, who has been running third in all public opinion polls behind Michaud and LePage, has been talking about the fundraising disparity for several months. He didn’t bring it up four years ago because the Republican and Democratic nominees in the 2010 race did have primary elections.

This election, the independent has kept pace with fundraising – in fact, he has raised more than his opponents, but only because he has given nearly $1 million of his own money.

According to the most recent campaign filings, covering donations through July 15, Cutler had raised slightly more than $2 million, to just under $2 million for Michaud and about $1.3 million for LePage.

Cutler has dramatically outspent the major-party candidates. Through July 15, he had spent $1.5 million, Michaud had spent $916,000 and LePage had spent just $326,700, although both benefit greatly from party support.

The court ruling means the Cutler campaign could receive an additional $1,500 each from the 351 donors who have made contributions of the $1,500 maximum. That would equal a total of $526,500, should those same donors decide to double their contributions.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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