Sussman who? Maine liberals move on after megadonor’s exit
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — The loss of a liberal megadonor’s millions of dollars in contributions this election season led Maine Democrats fighting to regain control of the state Senate to increasingly lean on a national Democratic Party group targeting state races in the state legislature where Republicans control the Senate and Democrats the House.
Maine Democrats’ $2 million push to pick up at least three Senate seats in rural districts comes as the independent-minded New England state is becoming less reliably blue. Billionaire hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman once provided $1 out of every $7 raised by Maine’s Democratic Party and its House and Senate campaign committees. But his donations have dried up since he and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree announced last year that they were divorcing.
“Any time you lose a donor of that magnitude, it’s a big deal, especially in a state such as Maine,” said Mark Brewer, University of Maine political science professor.
As Sussman turns his attention to the presidential race, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national committee that offers financial assistance to state leaders and candidates, has stepped in by contributing $1.5 million this election cycle to Maine’s Democratic Party and House and Senate campaign committees — double what it gave in 2012.
The Washington, D.C.-based group — financed by unions, Wal-Mart and pharmaceutical companies — says Democrats have a good shot at five seats in areas where President Barack Obama received at least 55 percent of the vote in 2012.
“GOP Gov. Paul LePage’s bigoted, racially charged comments and erratic behavior have damaged the Republican brand in the state,” reads the website of the group, which didn’t respond to a request for comment. State campaign finance reports show political groups have spent $2 million on independent expenditures in state Senate races, with $1.5 million spent on races for seven Republican-controlled seats outside the Democrats’ stronghold in southern Maine.
Sussman, who once owned Maine’s largest media company, has gained prominence as one of the nation’s most prolific donors to progressive politicians, political groups and causes, with tens of millions in reported donations to national and Maine politics since 2008. He is a registered voter in Florida, from where he has supported dozens of Democratic congressional candidates and reportedly donated $21 million to the Democratic Party’s pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC.
“It’s very odd to be giving millions when your objective is to actually get the money out of politics,” he told The Washington Post last month.
Sussman, whose divorce to Pingree became final this summer, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
Between 2008 and 2014, Sussman gave $2.1 million to Maine Democrats and another $3.2 million to political action committees supporting causes like same-sex marriage and more funding for Maine public schools.
But even though Sussman’s name isn’t appearing on state campaign finance reports, his money is finding its way to Maine politics in other ways. He gave the maximum $2,700 contribution to Pingree and Democratic congressional candidate Emily Cain for their primary fights, and has contributed $7.9 million to House Majority PAC, which has announced spending $1.6 million in Maine TV ads attacking Cain’s opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said he supports political donors’ free speech rights, but finds it hypocritical when Democrats don’t denounce big out-of-state checks from one-percenters.
“He became a significant liability to Democrats,” Savage said, adding that Democrats used Sussman’s checkbook for “ridiculous” attack ads that didn’t help Democrats win the governor’s seat or keep the Maine Senate.
Even without Sussman’s contributions, Maine Democrats have outraised Maine Republicans 2-1 this year, according to state reports. Maine Democratic groups reported raising $5.2 million so far this year, just about the amount reported by this point during the Democrat’s unsuccessful 2014 fight to unseat LePage.
Savage said he’s proud the GOP spends less money in more targeted ways. Maine Republican groups have gotten an $180,000 boost from the Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee, and $190,000 from LePage’s political group ICE PAC to help the GOP support candidates. ICE PAC has also reported spending $25,363 to support Republican senatorial candidate Ricky Long, who is running against former Democratic Attorney General Michael Carpenter.
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett declined comment. LePage’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.