The real dark money in Maine politics

Politics is the art of persuasion. And there are lots of ways to persuade people.

Candidates or political groups can spend money on television and radio ads. They can send direct mail. They can pay companies to call your house. They can run ads on the internet.

And they can pay organizers to arrange publicity stunts that the media covers for free.

It’s called “earned media,” and it’s a central component of any political communications plan.

Earned media consists of columns in the opinion sections of newspapers, letters to the editor, and best of all — hard news stories written about a cause or candidate.

About 20 people gathered outside the Bangor home of Sen. Susan Collins on Dec. 10 to protest the sweeping tax bill then pending in Congress. Meg Haskell | BDN

Earned media is one of the highest mediums of political art because it relies on multiple layers of trust to be effective. Political operatives must know exactly how to approach a skeptical news media, who generally don’t want to be manipulated for political causes. And they need to make sure the stories they generate aren’t seen as a paid effort by the general public. The best practitioners of this art leave no fingerprints, and the end result is the appearance of a totally organic public display of opinion about a cause or candidate.

Take for example the recent flurry of protests over Congress’s passage of tax reform. All across Maine, and in Washington, D.C., as well, angry citizens gathered in public displays of opposition to the bill. As these groups assembled, television and print media followed, reporting the concerns of these citizens. If you watched or read the coverage, it would be reasonable to believe this anger was the result of regular folks getting together on their own to protest.

What you wouldn’t know is that people are being paid to help organize this opposition by D.C. special interest groups. Outside groups are even paying the airfare of Mainers to fly to D.C. to purposely get arrested in protest.

This is exactly the type of political theater professional organizers are paid to create. And the notion that it is all “grassroots” activity is exactly what the funders are hoping for.

Of course, public theater to the level we’ve seen during the tax reform debate can’t be created out of whole cloth. There needs to be some baseline public emotion to work with. Conservatives were able to tap into latent public fear during the Obamacare debate, and liberals are doing the same thing now. By fomenting fear and then organizing action, political operatives are able to create public demonstrations that end up in the newspaper and on TV.

And every story is like free money for the D.C. groups that are behind these efforts. Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads, these groups can pay local organizers far less to create demonstrations with earnest citizens that occupy just as much airtime as paid ads. And the hard news stories they generate are far more credible than a paid ad.

Another benefit of this type of political activity is that it doesn’t require any type of disclosure. So while a 30-second television ad must clearly identify the funder of the ad, a 30-second news story on the same station very rarely mentions who funded the protest or demonstration in the story. In fact, most reporters in Maine have no idea who is behind most of these demonstrations, and believe, as their audiences do, that these well-orchestrated media events simply sprung up out of nowhere.

This is the heart of “dark money” in politics. And there’s lots and lots of money being spent this way.

Right now, in Maine, there are organizers with clipboards and talking points working with protesters to maximize the earned media impact of their efforts. There are paid staffers making contact with media outlets to make sure they get press coverage. There are paid operatives working the internet to amplify the messages that D.C. groups want voters to hear. And none of this is being reported on as part of the media’s coverage.

There is no legal requirement to be transparent about this type of political spending. But that doesn’t mean the Maine press should ignore this critical layer of the political process. Money in politics is money in politics, and just because the spending doesn’t come in the form of a campaign donation doesn’t mean it has any less of an impact on our process.

Political organizers are allowed to work behind the scenes, accepting unlimited funds and engaging in unlimited amounts of political activity to influence the course of public policy. This is just as overt a political action as a television commercial, and it’s unreasonable that one requires transparency and the other doesn’t.

It’s time to have an honest discussion about what really moves public policy in Maine, and to shine some light on the dark money that is being funneled into our state.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.