U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin has signed a confidential agreement that will require him to disclose his legislative agenda and its “political justification” to a national Republican committee in exchange for financial support during his re-election bid.

The agreement raises questions about whether Poliquin’s campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee are acting independently – which they must do if the committee wants to spend unlimited amounts of money to support Poliquin’s re-election bid.

It’s common for congressional candidates and party committees to share their legislative goals. But the agreement signed by Poliquin and 22 other Republican congressmen shows an unusual level of coordination, said Larry Noble, chief legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.

“I question whether (the NRCC) can do an independent expenditure with anyone who signs one of these things because they’re basically helping run the campaign,” said Noble, a former legal counsel for the Federal Election Commission. “They’re requiring the campaign to meet certain standards and to provide so much information about how the campaign is going to operate, the issues it’s going to deal with, what its proposals are going to be. To me, that really undermines the NRCC’s ability to do any independent expenditures.”

An independent expenditure is money spent by a political committee such as the NRCC to either support or oppose a candidate with political communications, such as radio, television or digital advertising. There is no limit on the amount of money a political committee can spend on independent expenditures.

However, such limitless spending requires the committee to operate independently of a candidate’s campaign. If Noble is correct in suggesting that the agreement Poliquin signed ties the NRCC too closely to his campaign, then Poliquin would lose a critical source of financial support during his bid for a second term in Maine’s 2nd District.

The NRCC spent nearly $1.3 million on Poliquin’s behalf in 2014, when he defeated former Democratic state Sen. Emily Cain and independent Blaine Richardson. Cain is taking another run at Poliquin. She and Joe Baldacci are competing for the Democratic nomination.

Coordination with a party committee isn’t illegal, Noble said, but if it takes place, then the amount of money the NRCC would be able to spend supporting a candidate – in this case Poliquin – would be limited to about $47,200 in coordinated campaign activity and a $5,000 donation, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Poliquin has raised about $1 million for his campaign so far.

The agreement Poliquin signed, first obtained by The Washington Post, poses other challenges for the congressman, a former financial adviser and state treasurer. An energetic campaigner, he has cast himself as an everyman who puts his personal beliefs and the interests of his 2nd District constituents ahead of loyalty to any party agenda or ideology. The agreement, however, paints a picture that raises questions about Poliquin’s legislative autonomy.

Among the 13 requirements in the agreement for acceptance into the so-called Patriot Program – an initiative the NRCC established in 2009 as a way to protect vulnerable incumbents – is the submission of a campaign plan to the NRCC that includes “detailed, written legislative strategy that provides short-, intermediate-, and long-term legislative goals, including political justifications for those goals.”

It adds: “Be sure to include local issues unique to the district or region. Complete a Patriot Policy Priorities worksheet to be used by NRCC staff to evaluate legislative priorities for the current Congress and to promote and advocate for those priorities where appropriate.”

Brent Littlefield, Poliquin’s political adviser, said in an email that the congressman’s policy priorities are “an open book,” including his quest to create “jobs, jobs and more jobs through policies which help, not hinder, job growth in Maine.” He noted that in his first term, Poliquin has been willing to cast votes counter to the will of the Republican establishment.

“Congressman Poliquin works for only one group: the people of the 2nd Congressional District. Congressman Poliquin does not work for the Republican Party, the Democratic Party or any other group or interest,” Littlefield said. “No outside entity has any control over anything congressman Poliquin has ever done, or will ever set out to do.”

Littlefield did not answer specific questions about whether the NRCC will sign off on the congressman’s policy agenda or if Poliquin risked losing financial support if the organization did not approve of a particular policy initiative.

Chris Pack, a spokesman for the NRCC, said in an email that the agreement is “for informational purposes only to know what members are interested in or going to be advocating for.”

Littlefield and Pack also did not respond to inquiries about the NRCC’s level of involvement in Poliquin’s re-election campaign.

The agreement, signed by Poliquin and his chief of staff, suggests that Poliquin’s campaign will have to use NRCC-sanctioned vendors for services such as polling, mail communications, fundraising and research. Also, item seven of the agreement obtained by The Washington Post says that the member will work with the NRCC to create an “aggressive cycle-long online fundraising plan” with specified goals. “Campaigns that consistently fail to reach monthly fundraising goals … are subject to direct involvement from the NRCC online fundraising team.”

“That sounds like a takeover,” said Noble, the former FEC legal counsel. “It’s not just a question of whether or not you’re finding out what the campaign is going to do. You’re actually setting the parameters for how the campaign is going to run. That’s what parties do, maybe not this formally, but they work with the campaigns. But then they can’t make independent expenditures.”

Pack would not comment on the NRCC’s involvement in Poliquin’s campaign or whether it was enough to be considered coordination.

The ability for political organizations like the NRCC to conduct independent expenditures was enshrined in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. It allowed political party organizations like the NRCC to spend unlimited amounts to influence elections, as long as they didn’t coordinate with the candidate’s campaign.

The national Democratic congressional committee has its own version of an independent expenditure program, called Frontline.

Noble said the agreement signed by Poliquin and the other Republican lawmakers raises questions about whether the NRCC and the candidate campaigns are truly acting independently of each other. If it’s determined that the two organizations are coordinating, he said, that would mean a significant loss in financial support for the candidates who signed the Patriot Program agreement.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

Noble said both parties have struggled to regain control over candidates during the rise of super political action committees, run by outside interest groups, that can also spend unlimited amounts of money to influence an election.

“I think this is an effort to get back some of that power because the candidates now are as responsive to the super PACs as they are to the parties,” he said. “It’s almost as if the candidate has to be responsive to somebody, not to voters.”

Steve Mistler — 791-6345

[email protected]

Twitter: stevemistler

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