Why Democrats can’t stop talking about Paula Benoit in Maine Senate District 19

Finance reports show that independent spending in Tuesday’s special election to replace recently resigned Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, in Senate District 19 (Sagadahoc County and Dresden) has reached about $158,000. Last week, outside groups spent $26,698 on Republican candidate Paula Benoit’s campaign, and $19,666 on Democrat Eloise Vitelli’s bid for the seat.

That brings total spending up to about $77,000 for Benoit and $81,000 for Vitelli. Most of the outside spending has come from the state parties, though other groups — most notably the Maine People’s Alliance, which last week alone spent more than $11,000 to elect Vitelli — have also contributed.

While the gap in total spending isn’t gigantic, the amount of money spent on opposition work is lopsided.

In reporting campaign expenditures, money is categorized by whether it “supports” or “opposes” a particular candidate or ballot question. In this case, funding to “support” a candidate can be anything from radio and TV ads to campaign office space, printing costs or staff time. “Opposition” money is basically any cash spent talking about the opponent. That can mean publicizing their voting record, criticizing their policy goals, or linking them to unpopular opinions or people.

The Maine Republican Party paid $8,000 on Aug. 23 to Littlefield Consulting — the agency spearheaded by Gov. Paul LePage’s chief political adviser, Brent Littlefield — $1,470 of which will be spent on phone messages opposing Vitelli. It’s the first time during the race that the GOP has spent money on opposition ads.

Meanwhile, the Maine Democratic State Committee has spent $29,780 since early August to oppose Benoit’s campaign by talking about the Republican in mailers and radio ads. Much of that has been spent in an effort to link the candidate to LePage, a connection Democrats are banking on in an effort to turn out liberal voters who can’t stand the governor.

So why did Democrats spend 20 times as much money talking about Paula Benoit as Republicans spent talking about Eloise Vitelli?

They say it boils down to Benoit’s name recognition and voting record. Vitelli is a relative newcomer, said Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant. Benoit has held the Senate District 19 seat before — in 2007 and 2008, before Goodall narrowly defeated her in her first re-election bid. Because special elections are all about turnout, Grant said the Republicans didn’t need to talk about Vitelli. That would boost her name recognition and, in a way, add weight to her candidacy.

Democrats, meanwhile, needed to address Benoit because she is the known factor, Grant said. She has a record, and a high profile.

“Republicans don’t have an interest getting Eloise Vitelli’s name in front of people,” Grant said Monday. “I think their plan was to do things quietly behind the scenes, and hope that Vitelli kind of couldn’t break through.”

“Eloise Vitelli is a great candidate, has a great profile, but is less well-known,” he said. “We anticipated she’d be able to do the legwork needed to tell people who she was, but we thought the voter also needed a reason to vote against Paula Benoit.”

Meanwhile, Jason Savage, executive director of Maine Republican Party, said the disparity in opposition spending shows that Benoit has run a “positive campaign.” He criticized the Democrats for running attack ads, such as a radio spot featuring Adam Lee of Lee Toyota in Topsham.

In the ad, Lee said: “Paula Benoit has been a loyal supporter of Paul LePage,” before queuing up a series of controversial quotes by the governor. “Politicians like Benoit and LePage have hurt Maine’s economy,” Lee says.

Meanwhile, Republicans released a radio ad recently featuring U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe stumping for Benoit.

“Small business woman Paula Benoit knows that hard work, common sense and respect will help Maine prosper,” Snowe says in the ad. She also paints a different picture of Benoit than the LePage-lackey narrative pushed by Democrats, saying Benoit will “bring an independent voice” to Augusta.

We’ll see which strategy worked on Tuesday night. Polls close in Sagadahoc County and Dresden at 8 p.m.

Mario Moretto

About Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and, now, in the State House. Mario left the BDN in 2015.