With less than two weeks remaining before Maine’s primary elections, the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor are hitting each other and the airwaves with increasingly negative messages.

With no recent, publicly available polls, it’s impossible to say whether any Democrat or Republican has a sizable lead over their competitors headed into the June 12 primaries. Mainers’ first-ever use of the ranked-choice voting system for statewide elections is only adding to that uncertainty.

But the growing intensity of the mudslinging – a virtual inevitability in hard-fought races nowadays – combined with new campaign fundraising and spending reports can shed light on who campaigns believe is at the top or trending toward it.

Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills has long been regarded as her field’s front-runner, and has been sparring heavily with attorney and veteran Adam Cote over guns and party loyalty in recent days. Cote also became the first candidate to approach the $1 million fundraising mark in what his campaign insists is more indication of late-campaign momentum while Mills reported more than $700,000 in contributions.

On the Republican side, three of the four candidates – Shawn Moody, Mary Mayhew and state Sen. Garrett Mason – or their allies have been airing ads trying to undercut their opponents’ conservative credentials.

THE DEMOCRATS

Guns have emerged as a major point of contention in the Democratic race.

For weeks, Cote and other Democratic candidates have been pointing to Mills’ former A+ rating from the National Rifle Association at a time when many progressives regard the NRA as the top obstacle to gun control reforms.

This week, the NRA gave all seven Democratic candidates failing grades, which campaigns were taking as badges of pride.

“I wouldn’t usually be proud to get a failing grade … but this time I’ll make an exception,” Mills wrote in a Facebook post. “I’m also proud to see my fellow Democratic candidates receiving failing grades from the NRA as well. Meanwhile, all four Republican candidates got ‘A’ or ‘A+’ ratings.”

Cote isn’t letting it go, however.

A retired major and 20-year veteran of the Maine Army National Guard, Cote released a revised version of an ad entitled “lockdown” inspired by the shooter-response training his and other children across Maine now undergo. Cote says Mills “was endorsed three times by the NRA” – citing the group’s “scorecard” ratings of her as a legislator in 2004, 2006 and 2008 – and reiterated his support for banning so-called “bump stocks” and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

“Janet hasn’t led on gun safety,” Cote said. “As governor, I will.”

But Mills also supports banning bump-stock devices that allow rapid-fire shooting as well as high-capacity magazines. And on Thursday, Mills launched an ad touting her record of prosecuting gun crimes, keeping firearms away from domestic abusers and fighting for “increased gun safety.”

“No wonder businessman Adam Cote is trying to tear her down with false attacks,” the ad’s narrator states. “For years, Cote was a registered Republican.”

That line sparked another back-and-forth between the campaigns.

Cote’s campaign said he registered as a Republican in 2000 in order to vote against George W. Bush in the party primary but then forgot about it as he raised a family and deployed to Iraq.

“I know this counts as an ‘attack’ in politics, but – given my experiences – someone mentioning something that’s been on my website since last year seems more desperate and out of touch than anything else,” Cote said in a statement. “I am a lifelong, active Democrat. I can’t imagine a single voter caring that 18 years ago when I was 26, I registered as a Republican to vote against George W. Bush in a presidential primary.”

But Mills’ campaign pointed out that Cote didn’t switch back to the Democratic Party until 2006, a few years before he launched an unsuccessful congressional bid in Maine’s 1st District. They also pointed to Cote’s donations in support of Republican candidates and donations to his 2008 campaign from Republicans.

“Adam Cote is trying to obscure his record, but voters won’t be mislead” Michael Ambler, Mills’ campaign manager, said in a blistering response to Cote’s claim of being a “lifelong Democrat.” “Cote’s long history of voting for Republicans, echoing Republican talking points, and taking money from out-of-state Republican donors raises serious questions about his attempt to portray himself as a lifelong champion of progressive values.”

Financially, Cote and Betsy Sweet – the only publicly financed candidate among the Democrats – had received the most donations. Cote reported raising just over $968,279 as of May 29, putting him close to the $1 million mark. But Sweet had received or been authorized for just shy of $700,000 in Clean Elections funding plus collected $99,331 in seed money contributions. Mills wasn’t far behind, with $718,301 in total contributions and loans, while former House Speaker Mark Eves reported raising $343,270.

Total contributions or loans for the other three Democratic candidates as of May 29 are as follows: Mark Dion at $41,897, Diane Russell at $70,069 and Donna Dion at $12,192.

While Cote reported $167,824 in available cash and Mills had $96,766 remaining, Sweet still had slightly more than $250,000 left unspent. Eves reported $91,804 still in the bank.

THE REPUBLICANS

In Maine’s other gubernatorial primary, candidates are bashing each other for not being conservative or Republican enough and are touting their NRA ratings.

The four Republican candidates – Mason, Mayhew, Moody and House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette – have all been vowing to continue or expand tax and welfare reform policies implemented by Republican Gov. Paul LePage over the past 7½ years. But each has potential vulnerabilities with the more conservative, Republican base they are courting for the primaries.

Moody, who some view as a potential front-runner, only registered as a Republican in October and ran for governor as an independent in 2010.

Mayhew carried LePage’s welfare-reform torch as commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for much of his administration but is also a former Democrat.

Mason, the youngest of the Republican lot at just 32, is running as a Clean Elections candidate in a party whose leadership – especially LePage – often refers to public campaign financing as “welfare for politicians.” And Fredette’s campaign has failed to generate much momentum despite his status as LePage’s chief ally in the Legislature for years.

Both Mason and a group backing Mayhew are airing ads highlighting Moody’s recent switch to the Republican Party just prior to launching his campaign. But while the pro-Mayhew radio ad – paid for by liquor entrepreneur Paul Coulombe and others involved in the Moose Tracks Political Action Committee – only targets Moody, Mason’s most recent TV ad hits both Moody and Mayhew for their Republican credentials.

“Shawn Moody and Mary Mayhew claim to be conservatives. The facts: both joined the Republican Party to run for office,” states Mason’s ad. “Both worked to elect pro-choice candidates. Don’t be fooled, neither has stood with us.”

Since registering as a Republican, Moody has hired LePage’s political consultant and the governor’s daughter, Lauren, for his campaign staff and recently picked up the endorsement of first lady Ann LePage.

“Shawn Moody stands behind our values, strong families, the second amendment and real welfare reform,” the narrator states in the radio ad. “And unlike candidate Garrett Mason, who’s pocketed more than $600,000 in Maine taxpayer funds for his campaign, Shawn Moody will protect taxpayers and cut wasteful spending.”

In the race for campaign dollars, Mason currently leads the pack after receiving $700,000 in public campaign financing plus at least $36,000 in seed contributions. Moody reported $686,405 raised, the majority of which came from his own bank account. Mayhew reported raising $360,206 as of May 29 while Fredette had yet to file an updated report by Friday evening.

In terms of remaining cash, Moody reported $329,992 still available, while Mason reported $81,779 and Mayhew $53,885.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

filed under: