By Jill Goldthwait
At this time next year we will be up to our clavicles in election campaigns. There is not a presidential election, thank goodness, and in Maine we will not be electing a U.S. senator (Angus King is up in 2024 and Susan Collins in 2026). But all seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are up, plus Maine’s gubernatorial seat and all Maine legislative seats.
You know the drill. There will not be a moment’s peace. Much is at stake in the congressional elections and if the coy, three-year tease of former Governor Paul LePage ends in a decision to run it will be a battle for the ages, mouthy Republican against feisty Democrat. Plenty of state legislative seats will be hot contests.
This will result in huge expenditures of money. In the primary and general elections in Maine in 2018, over $65 million was spent. Candidate campaigns will spend as freely as they are able, and so will the parties. The lowliest of races are not beneath notice if there is a possibility that a win could flip control of Congress, a governor’s office or a State House. In what are deemed important races, the national parties will kick in, too.
A run for president is always expensive. Flying all over the country, hordes of staff, event venues, advertising and all the other campaign accoutrements are not cheap. A campaign must create a persona for the candidate and introduce him or her to us. After all, how many of us know these big cheese candidates in person?
In a state like Maine, ranked 42nd in state populations, is that kind of spending on in-state races really necessary? The common political wisdom is yes. Breathes there a politician with the guts to test that out?
It takes resources to get around rural Maine. For much of the state there is a whole lot of nothing in between bits of something. Most candidates have some name recognition, or think they do, but the retail politics of Maine demand face-to-face interaction. Many a mile must be covered to reach small numbers of people in a large number of places.
When it comes to state legislative races, in which spending has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years, how can it cost that much? Each Senate district has about 38,000 people, a House district 8,600. How hard can it be, in six months of campaigning, to meet almost everyone? Yet campaign spending on legislative races in 2020 reached almost $7.5 million, up 35 percent from the previous election year (2018) and well over double what was spent just a decade ago.
Surely it is possible to substitute sweat equity for a lot of that spending. But candidates, schooled by the parties, are warned off this kind of person-to-person campaign. Lawn signs and brochures are the least of it. Now a candidate must have a presence on television and radio and, perhaps most importantly, online
Few candidates have the confidence to simply ramble around their district and meet people. Recently, a few candidates have tried this approach to no avail. One took any money donated and turned it over to nonprofits. Yet truth be known, these were long-shot candidates in the first place with approximately zero name recognition and no political experience, and were running for Congress, not state legislature.
We can pass all the laws we want about campaign spending reform, and they are certainly important. Yet experience has shown that most of them will be promptly circumvented by the creative campaign industry.
Instead of spending all that money, try this. Go everywhere. Go to meetings of boards of selectmen and school boards and planning boards, conservation commissions and recreation commissions and recycling committees. Before the meeting starts, tell the chairperson who you are and why you’re there, ask if it is OK to sit in and listen, and then don’t say anything at all.
Find locally active people and invite them for a coffee to tell you about their town. Listen more than you talk. In fact, don’t talk at all unless it is to ask questions. Prepare those questions in advance. Pay close attention to the answers. Take notes. Most importantly, when it’s time to go, ask if that person can recommend two others in that town whose acquaintance you should make. Call them up and tell them Margaret or Fred said they were people you must meet.
It takes guts to campaign this way, but you know Maine towns, right? Because you live in one. If people have a positive reaction to you, they will pass that along to their friends and neighbors. If they don’t, money won’t help. But you will have an experience you will remember forever, and it’s a lot more fun than raising money.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.