The state’s largest abortion rights advocacy group has spent a likely record amount of money on candidate races this year in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling.
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England’s political action committee in Maine has spent $836,059 this year in independent expenditures, a category of campaign spending that allows groups to show support or opposition to candidates, according to Maine campaign finance records. It is the largest amount of spending by the organization in at least a decade, higher than the $562,233 in 2014.
The spending has mostly focused on the governor’s race between Democratic incumbent Janet Mills and Republican Paul LePage, a former governor. But Planned Parenthood also has concentrated on several competitive legislative districts.
The organization’s spending is just a fraction of the money that has come into Maine this year from political groups. But Planned Parenthood holds a unique position as the biggest political force on the pro-abortion rights side in the state. Its national campaign counterpart was on track to spend record amounts this year nationally, OpenSecrets reported in August.
The spending is one example of how much Democrats and their allies are focusing on abortion as an issue this year in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling this summer by the Supreme Court. Republicans, meanwhile, are pressing hard on economic issues.
“We’ve never been in a situation like this where we don’t have Roe to fall back on,” said Nicole Clegg, the senior vice president of public affairs for PPNE.
“The stakes in this election are real,” she later said. “If the election does not go well, it is going to affect a woman’s ability to access care.”
While Maine has some of the nation’s stronger abortion protections, Clegg has said they could be at risk if Republicans take the State House this year. That threat has motivated the organization to mount an aggressive campaign, with volunteers canvassing voters to talk specifically about the issue. It released an ad supporting Mills, sent out mailers criticizing LePage, and plans to release legislative-focused materials within the week, Clegg said.
About 57 percent of the PAC’s money — $349,509 — has focused on opposition efforts, with most of that aimed at LePage, campaign records through Tuesday show. Conversely, Mills has received most of the favorable spending — $98,813.
Abortion was one of the breakout topics in the first Mills-LePage debate. LePage has historically been considered an opponent of abortion rights, but during the debate said he would leave intact Maine’s 1993 law that protects abortion access until fetus viability, typically defined as 24 weeks. He said he would veto legislation to limit access to abortion after 15 weeks, but struggled to answer questions about viability and restricting access to the procedure.
Clegg said she is not convinced LePage would honor the current state law or refrain from moving to restrict abortion access. The Christian Civic League of Maine, perhaps the most vocal anti-abortion lobbying organization in the state, later called LePage’s response “concerning’’ but also sought to assure its followers that it favored LePage over Mills, Maine Public reported.
LePage spokesperson Brent Littlefield pushed back, saying the former governor never made a move to change the 1993 law during his previous two terms as governor.
Mills has vowed to protect access to abortion, signing an executive order barring Maine from cooperating with other states to prosecute people who come from areas where abortion is restricted to get the procedure here. She has promised to veto efforts to restrict abortion rights if re-elected. Her campaign spokesperson, Mary Erin Casale, reiterated that promise Tuesday.
While the economy has consistently polled as a top issue for Maine voters this year, abortion crept up following the Dobbs decision. An Emerson College poll last month found abortion to be the third-most important issue to Maine voters behind the economy and threats to democracy. The poll found 98 percent of Mills voters ranked abortion rights a top issue compared to 69 percent of LePage supporters, who put the economy as their top issue.
The highest spending on the legislative side has focused on some of Maine’s most competitive races. Opposition spending has concentrated solely on Republicans, with $65,495 spent against Senate District 20 candidate Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, as of Tuesday, followed by Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, who is running for Senate District 11, at $51,082. Both face tough elections in swingable districts.
The highest amount that Planned Parenthood’s PAC spent to support a legislative candidate went to Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, who received $44,734 in his race against Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittson. That race has seen the second-highest amount of outside spending in legislative races. Democrat Mike Tipping of Orono is a distant second at $13,661.
Clegg said the organization chooses where to spend based in part on whether it believes a candidate can succeed. But it also focuses on candidates they see as having defined themselves by anti-abortion stances, with Clegg pointing specifically to Brakey and Kinney. Both candidates said they would support restricting access to abortion and opposed use of Medicaid money to pay for the procedure on the Christian Civic League of Maine’s 2022 candidate survey.
Tipping and Brakey both said that the economy is the most important issue this year, but differed on how much abortion comes up on the campaign.
Tipping said abortion comes up fairly frequently, particularly when talking with University of Maine students and older residents.
“They remember life before Roe v. Wade,” he said of the older voters, “and are very concerned about it.”
Brakey, meanwhile, said Androscoggin County voters only bring up abortion occasionally compared to economic issues. He criticized Planned Parenthood as one of the many outside interests trying to influence his race.
“Most people are concerned about their pocketbooks,” he said.
There has been no outside spending from anti-abortion factions recorded in state campaign reports, but the Christian Civic League’s political force is largely concentrated in its candidate surveys and outreach efforts. Policy director Mike McClellan said voters are energized by the overturning of Roe, which has translated to a good fundraising year for the nonprofit.
But he was doubtful it would be enough of a factor in the election. “I don’t really run into a lot of people concerned about abortion,” he said. “But who knows — at the end of the day it depends on who goes (out to vote) for what.”
Caitlin Andrews covers state politics and elections for The Maine Monitor. Reach her with other story ideas by email: email@example.com.