One of the state’s leading environmental groups is jumping into the gubernatorial contest with television ads.

The political action committee for Maine Conservation Voters will begin running a spot this week supporting Democrat Mike Michaud and opposing Republican Gov. Paul LePage, according to files posted by the Federal Communications Commission. The size of the buy is not yet clear, but a consultant not affiliated with the group indicated that it’s at least $425,000.

A lobbyist for the group confirmed that the ad was forthcoming. Maureen Drouin, a spokeswoman for the league, would not discuss details of the ad.

Campaign finance watchdogs have predicted that spending by outside groups will likely dwarf the money spent by the individual campaign committees. The Maine Conservation Action PAC has a history of getting involved in legislative races and targeting candidates who have made its so-called “dirty dozen” list. In 2012, the group’s PAC spent more than $70,000, including more than $50,000 in independent expenditures that attempted to sway legislative contests.

The PAC has more firepower this time, thanks to large contributions from aligned progressive PACs and donors, and in particular, a $250,000 contribution from the treasury of its parent organization, the League of Conservation Voters. The Maine PAC had taken in more than $400,000 through July 31.

The league’s federal PAC spent over $2.2 million on congressional races in 2012. The organization and its aligned super PAC have already spent nearly $5 million during this year’s midterm contests. The nonprofit listed nearly $37 million in gross receipts, according to its 2012 tax filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

– Steve Mistler

SPORTSMAN’S ALLIANCE WEIGHS IN

Locked in a high-profile fight to preserve the bear hunting law in Maine, a top sportsmen’s group has kept its grades for the state’s politicians decidedly uncontroversial.

On Thursday, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine released the grades for candidates in Maine’s top races, which were based on responses to a group questionnaire and interview. None of the candidates received lower than a B grade, and the alliance gave no endorsements for governor or Congress.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler and Democrat Emily Cain got the lowest marks because of their support for expanding background checks on firearms purchased in private sales and their willingness to discuss a national park in Maine’s North Woods region.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine has recently been the state’s most vocal foe of gun control proposals and opposes a new national park in Maine. There is no formal park plan before Congress now, but environmentalist Roxanne Quimby has proposed giving the federal government 70,000 acres around Millinocket for a park and $20 million to maintain it. Cutler supports the park and Cain is undecided.

On the group’s scorecard, A grades were awarded to Republicans and two independents: incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage and the party’s nominees for Congress – the 2nd District’s Bruce Poliquin and the 1st District’s Isaac Misiuk. The independent candidates are Blaine Richardson in the 2nd District and Richard Murphy in the 1st District.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd District, the Democratic nominee for governor, got an A- due to his support for expanding background checks. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, her Democratic opponent, Shenna Bellows, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, did not respond to the questionnaire and were not graded.

Still, the group is careful to praise all candidates who responded.

That’s because the alliance has just about all of Maine’s top politicians in its corner on a November referendum question that will ask voters to ban bear baiting, trapping and hounding in Maine. The alliance is leading a coalition of groups to oppose the question, which is supported by the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group.

LePage, Michaud, Cutler, Cain, Poliquin, Bellows, Misiuk, Murphy and Richardson all oppose the referendum. Pingree has stayed neutral, according to the alliance, while Collins didn’t respond to the group’s question on it.

In a news release, the alliance said the coalition of politicians who back it in the referendum “is a fragile collection representing a wide array of political interests.” In an interview, David Trahan, the alliance’s executive director, said endorsing any of the candidates could erode the unified opposition, though the alliance will make endorsements in legislative races.

“Whether people like it or not, there’s going to be hard feelings and we wanted to avoid that,” he said.

– Michel Shepherd

CUTLER AD AIRING ALL OVER MAINE

Independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler has received a significant amount of media coverage amplifying his repeated calls for early debates with his rivals, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. Now his campaign is paying for it.

According to the Cutler campaign, a 30-second TV spot is airing in all state markets. In terms of rhetoric, the spot pretty much travels the same path as his previous statements on the issue. Cutler, against a backdrop of an empty auditorium and vacant podiums, says LePage has spurned early debates because “his record is indefensible,” while Michaud doesn’t want to debate because he’s “changed his positions so many times that it’s hard to keep track.”

He also says that the party candidates want the public to vote early, a reference to the start of early absentee voting.

“If they don’t have the courage to debate, how will they have the courage to lead?” Cutler concludes at the end of the ad, a toned-down version of his assertion in July that Michaud and LePage were “cowards.”

The message of the ad isn’t that new, but it may reach a wider audience. The spot wisely leaves out the strategic details that may explain why LePage and Michaud aren’t willing to debate early.

Michaud and LePage are in a statistical dead heat, while Cutler is far behind. It’s not in the interest of the Michaud campaign to elevate the profile of a candidate who could siphon votes (although it might be in LePage’s interest). Additionally, there are six debates scheduled for October, but that’s not good enough for Cutler, whose campaign is racing the clock of early voting and polling a distant third.

The ad asks Mainers to wait for the debates before voting.

– Steve Mistler

Campaign Notebook is a compilation of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram political blogs, Open Season and Capitol Ticker. Press Herald/Telegram staff writers Steve Mistler, Randy Billings, Eric Russell, Kevin Miller and Matt Byrne and Kennebec Journal reporter Michael Shepherd contribute to the blogs.

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