Big money doesn’t always lead to big results

A few million bucks doesn’t buy what it used to.

That seems to be the message from the Georgia special election. And it’s the same message from Augusta, where lawmakers are considering changes to last November’s referenda.

South of the Mason-Dixon, newly-elected Re. Karen Handel spent a little over $3 million on her campaign. Her Democratic opponent — who happened to not even live in the district he sought to represent — topped $22 million. Outside GOP groups dropped $18 million, while those affiliated with the left “invested” $8 million. Add it all up, and the Democrats spent about 40 percent more.

Yet in that race, the short money (relatively speaking) was the smart money.

We’re seeing something similar play out in Augusta. A lot of groups spent a lot of money getting their favored, custom-written laws on the ballot and into the statute books. The National Education Association threw over $2 million of a nearly $5 million haul into the pot to pass the income tax hike and education spending increase proposal. Opponents raised $500,000.

The Maine People’s Alliance, vanguard of our state’s political left, spent over half a million dollars on a $2.3 million effort to pass Question 4, raising the minimum wage and phasing out the tip credit. Opponents there raised about $130,000.

And an amalgam of groups supporting Question 5 raised more than $1 million, with groups moving money between themselves in nearly every campaign finance report. That question asked about the partially-unconstitutional ranked-choice voting proposal. No formal opposition was formed, and no reportable money spent against it.

Each of these ballot questions won in November. Yet, as the summer solstice passes and the legislative days left in Augusta grow short, it appears more and more likely that the laws will be amended. And that short money opposition may be successful after all.

In Georgia, the lesson should be clear. A $9 million spending advantage doesn’t mean much if the candidate doesn’t match the district.

In Maine, there is something similar at play.

Take, for example, the $5 million spent in support of Question 2, which raised the top income tax rate to 10.15 percent. Portland loved the idea. Scarborough and Windham didn’t. Bangor and Lewiston were warm to it, but not resoundingly so. Hermon and Turner screamed “no way.”

That is why a 9-to-1 spending advantage doesn’t mean the policy advanced by advocates is iron-clad. Representatives (and senators) are elected to represent; that’s axiomatic. And despite a statewide win and millions upon millions in spending, our system works district by district.

This has made the organizations which put the ballot questions forward “mad as hell.” That is understandable. They worked for months and spent millions to see their favored policies enacted. Watching it all fade away through the legislative process must be more than frustrating.

But the big money raised and spent on the ballot questions does not seem to deter the individual men and women who were elected, district by district, to serve their communities. They are making the best decisions they can on legislation as it appears before them. And the threats from well-funded advocacy groups have not overcome the concern of constituents and fundamental beliefs on core policy issues.

It is why Rep. Heather Sirocki, a Republican who fearlessly pursues whatever she believes to be the correct course of action, continues to wage a Davidian battle against ranked choice voting — she believes it unconstitutional and wrong. It is why Sen. Bill Diamond, an elder of the Democratic party, was part of the fight in favor of maintaining the tip credit — those were the issues brought to him by wait staff and restaurants in his district.

And it is why Republicans and many Democrats will join to reduce Maine’s new 10.15 percent income tax bracket. Their districts opposed it, or some officials simply believe it to be wrong. Or both. But the financial war-chest of advocacy groups challenging politicians for deviating from their desired orthodoxy needn’t be feared.

Because, ultimately, outspending your opposition by millions of dollars isn’t a magic potion to win elections and enact policy. If it was, we’d all be awaiting the inauguration of Rep. Jon Ossoff as the newest representative from Georgia.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.