Friday, November 5, 2010

Maine: did outside negative ads work in local Senate races?

This campaign season was one of Maine's nastier ones in recent memory, in large part because of the role false negative advertising played in the election. Both Democratic and Republican groups indulged in outright lies about various candidates' records. But did it help them?

There's already been plenty of attention given to the gubernatorial race, where the Maine Democratic Party's decision to stretch the truth beyond the breaking point appears to have backfired, fueling the nearly successful last-minute stampede to independent Eliot Cutler, who finished a narrow second in the race. Mr. Cutler has argued that the experience shows that false campaign advertising doesn't work in Maine.

One hopes that is the case, but the outcome of five key state senate races provides evidence to the contrary.

In the waning days of the campaign, the Kennebec Journal reported that the D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee had dumped a staggering $400,000 into five state senate races, in most cases spending more than the actual candidates combined. (The RSLC had also failed to disclose their contributions in a timely fashion, meaning Democratic clean elections candidates didn't receive matching funds in time to use them effectively.) Most of the money was spent on negative -- and in some cases, false -- advertising against the Democrats in the race, and in a tone so unpleasant that even some of the Republican candidates denounced them. “There’s an ugly side to this that doesn’t belong here,” Republican Senate District 28 candidate Brian Langley told the Bangor Daily News, adding the ads could well hurt him.

Not so, it turns out. The ads appear to have worked.

In all five races targeted by the RSLC media blitz, the Democratic candidates lost: Lois A Snowe Melllo (R) took out Deborah Simpson 54-46 in District 15; Nichi Farnham (R) beat Joseph Perry 56-44 in District 32; Tom Martin Jr. (R) defeated Pamela Trinward (D) 54-46 in District 25, and Mr. Langley prevailed over Democratic rival James Schatz and onetime Green gubernatorial candidate Lynne Williams in District 28 by 52-35-13. In District 24, Augusta's Republican mayor, Roger Katz (who also condemned the ads) defeated Democrat Patsy Crockett 62-38.

There's no way to quantify the effect the ads had on these election results, but at least two of the races were close enough for the ads to have easily been decisive, helping give the GOP control of the Senate. Expect the RSLC -- and possibly its Democratic counterpart -- to intervene in our elections from here on out.

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