The record for independent expenditures in Maine was set in 2010 when state Ethics Commission Executive Director Jonathan Wayne recorded $1.5 million in spending to elect candidates to 35 state Senate seats and 151 seats in the House of Representatives.
This year, says Wayne, that number could be doubled. "This year we're on track to see somewhere probably between $2 million $3 million being spent by the independent groups, and the two groups who are doing the most spending are the political parties and the PACS," Wayne says.
Much of that spending, says Wayne, is being driven by a single state Senate race in Bangor, where incumbent Republican Nichi Farnham is facing a challenge from Democrat Dr. Geoff Gratwick.
Ironically both candidates are running as Maine Clean Election candidates and pledged to run frugal campaigns of $21,455 each in an effort to hold down costs and limit the impact of special interests in politics.
But the candidates' decision to run clean has no bearing on what third parties can spend on their behalf. To date, Wayne estimates about $300,000 dollars has been spent by third parties in Bangor's Senate District 32.
"Just to give you a sense of proportion, the amount that's being spent in that Senate district is about a quarter of all the independent spending that we saw in all the legislative races in 2010 - that district seems to be attracting a lot of attention," Wayne says.
The spending has been accelerated in part because there are a number of open legislative seats this year, And Republicans are under pressure to retain majority status at the State House.
At the same time, Democrats believe they can capitalize politically on some of the unpopular reforms pushed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
While the spending mounts, proponents of public campaign financing in maine express frustration. They point to court rulings that now prohibit matching funds for publicly-financed candidates who are being outspent.
Efforts to find an alternative system to the matching funds problem here in Maine were stymied by the Legislatures Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, after Republicans refused to support a compromise. The chair of that committee was State Sen. Nichi Farnum.
Maine Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant says Farnum is typical of Republicans who run “clean” but try to weaken the Clean Election system at the same time.
"They want to have their cake and eat it too,” Grant says. “They want to be seen as being on the side of Clean Elections, yet damage the program enough so that candidates wouldn't be as effective.”
But Assistant Senate Majority Leader Debra Plowman says Republicans were forced to crank up the heat on independent expenditures after deep-pocket Democrats, such as hedge fund billionaire Donald Sussman, started giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to Maine Democratic political action committees.
”I don't have box seats to the Red Sox to give to somebody for showing up at a fundraiser and bringing a bunch of money," says Sen. Debra Plowman.
But Democrats counter that Republicans set the bar two years ago when the GOP spent $400,000 on five state Senate races. Andrew Bossie, executive of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, worries that the influx of megabucks into taxpayer-financed races will undo the system.
"If Maine people are concerned about this type of outside money coming into our elections, they should ask where their candidates stand on important issues like campaign finance reform," Bossie says.
With about two weeks remaining before Election Day, nearly $2 million has been spent on legislative races through independent expenditures, and the biggest money drop is yet to come.