Two attack ads from political action committees opposing the candidacies of Gov. Janet Mills and Paul LePage.
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Should you stumble upon former Governor Paul LePage’s YouTube channel (it has 65 subscribers, so it’s easy to miss) you will be greeted initially by a campaign ad featuring Ann LePage, his wife, in a cardigan, pearl necklace, and dangling earrings extolling LePage’s efforts to support veterans. “Together,” she tells us at the end of the 30-second ad, “the governor and I are making sure our veterans are not forgotten.”

You might be forgiven for not noticing the spot is eight years old. Since just this week the LePage campaign released a remarkably similar ad, with Ann LePage similarly in a head-and-shoulders shot, cardigan, pearl necklace, and dangling earrings. “Together,” she tells us at the end of the 30-second ad, “we can move Maine forward.” 

In “Ann,” we hear from former Governor LePage’s wife, Ann, who assures viewers “we can move Maine forward,” as part of a familiar effort to soften his image.

These are the sorts of humanizing ads that campaigns pay for on their own — positive, asking for your vote, and designed to make the candidate seem like nothing more than your average Mainer next door. 

You may have seen Governor Janet Mills’ campaign’s equivalents: Four years ago her big 60-second spot featured step-daughter Lisl doing the head-and-shoulders voiceover and an ad called “Stan” detailed how a stroke felled her husband, leading the couple to deal with the “high deductibles and prescription drug costs” many Mainers face. 

This year, it’s a pairing of an ad titled, “Maine First,” where Janet is described for both her historic firsts. One frames her as the first woman to be Maine’s Attorney General and Governor, where she promises to put politics aside and “Maine first.” In another, called “Family,” she and her stepdaughters recreate a photo of the girls when they were young. 

In “Family,” we see a playful Governor Mills, her stepdaughters offering her an opportunity to use raising five teenaged girls as a metaphor for working across the aisle.

“I learned to listen,” Mills tells the camera, “and work together. Because no one has a monopoly on solutions in a family, or in a state.” 

Were we Mainers only to be subjected to these sorts of ads while watching our Sunday football and evening news, you’d rarely hear complaints. But these are, of course, just the ads created by the official campaigns. 

The nasty ones? The ones with the dramatic voiceovers and worst-possible photos of the candidate, and weird black-and-white aesthetics? Those are generally created and paid for by other people, usually political action committees (PACs!), and they — by law, anyway — are not allowed to actually coordinate with the campaigns, so you never see the candidates or their surrogates address the camera. 

In “The LePage Story,” his campaign contrasts his early life on the Lewiston streets with Mills’ ability to travel the world. It is hard not to find the stock image of loving hippies amusing.

Instead, they sort of hammer you with the blunt-force objects of stock photos and video, gussied up with targeted and simplified messages in menacing fonts and colors that are often designed to simply oppose one candidate, without even mentioning the other. 

And they are buying a huge portion of the ads this election cycle. 

In both “Legacy” and “Cuts and Chaos,” Better Maine pairs an unflattering shot of LePage with what they deem an unflattering reality.

The single biggest spender is Better Maine, a PAC funded primarily by the Democratic Governors Association, with help from Emily’s List, Rebuild Maine, and others, which are themselves PACs. They have dropped a total of $6.3 million as of Oct. 14 in nothing but opposing LePage (and just $43,446 supporting Mills), largely in ads that ask you to remember who Paul LePage was as governor. 

They ran at least 17 different ads, starting early with messages targeting LePage’s views on abortion. They highlight his statement that we “should not have abortion” and his answer on a Christian Civic League questionnaire saying he supports restrictions on abortion, then move into highlights of Mills’ relief checks and the “cuts and chaos” of the first LePage administration. Video from newscasts is especially deployed to make LePage look angry and violent, with a side of buffoonish and sweaty. 

This Better Maine ad highlights LePage’s past support for abortion restrictions in a Christian Civic League questionnaire.

Of course, Better Maine has no monopoly on making the opposition look scary. The Maine Republican Party is the largest anti-Mills spender, their PAC arm (technically a Political Action Party) funded by the Republican Governors Association, the Republican National Committee, and the Maine Values PAC. They have dropped $2.5 million so far. Which is just a bit lower than the $2.8 million the Maine Department of Education spent to incentivize Maine teachers to develop virtual lesson plans during the pandemic — a practice the minute-long “Janet Mills’ Radical Lessons” declares is “wrong for our kids and Maine.”

They show about 30 seconds of the lesson plan a kindergarten teacher created in part to explain the concept of transgender identities — “but some people, when they get a little bit older, decide what the doctor said was not right.” With knowing disdain, a female voiceover wonders, “Is this really what our children should be learning in kindergarten, instead of math, science, and reading?” A pink-wearing, blonde-headed kindergarten teacher is presented as an ideal, before we get Mills speaking silently in slow-motion, a weird filter applied to make it seem like cinders from a fire are streaming past her face, as though she were reporting in from Mordor. 

In “Janet’s Radical Lessons,” the Maine Republicans use a selective still from a benign video and black-and-white aesthetics to make Janet seem scary.

It’s fair to wonder whether it is good for the people living in Maine to have their candidates for governor cast as radical agents of chaos by the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations to the tune of roughly $9 million in thousands and thousands of ads. 

It’s also fair to wonder why the Maine Families First PAC, which has dropped $1 million to oppose Janet Mills, is based in Arlington, Virginia. As Mainers have seen in countless attack ads against Democratic Congressman Jared Golden (CD-2), they seek to tie Governor Mills to President Biden, whom they claim is “crushing Maine families with rising costs.” In a series of eight commercials they’ve run so far, there are lots of stock-video families looking at bills and touching their foreheads in woe, along with specious claims that Mills supported a “grocery tax,” which is what they call a new Maine law that forces large companies to reimburse municipalities for the expense of recycling their packaging. 

But it’s not just video-based advertisements. Heck, the Maine Democratic Party bought the URL and put up a single-scroll website based around the supposition that, “For eight long years, Paul LePage’s disastrous policies held Maine back.

In “Crushed,” Maine Families First seems to think AP photographer Robert Bukaty’s shot of Mills touring Hallowell in sunglasses on May 25 makes her look menacing.

Now he says that he’s changed, but really he’s the same old Paul LePage.” There are a series of issue-based graphics where the Democrats outline (mostly by linking to news articles and a few opinion pieces) what he did over his eight years as governor and why his statements and behavior on the campaign trail indicate we’d get more of the same. 

It seems as though early “change” discourse from the LePage campaign has largely dried up, though. It doesn’t appear in his advertising at all, whether from the campaign or PAC supporters like the NRA Political Victory Fund, which threw him $4,500 in radio ads to tout his straight talk and support for concealed carry, or Blueprint for Maine’s Future, which spent $15,000 on ads that claim Mills wants “sex ed in kindergarten” (she does not) and that Maine parents get “cancelled” when they speak out to oppose it (this has not happened). 

In fact, LePage has little “support” at all from outside spenders. While Planned Parenthood spent nearly $100,000 to show videos of Mills declaring her unwavering support for abortion access, and Maine Conservation Voters (helped by leftover Sara Gideon money) spent almost $500,000 on ads that include an early-thirties guy talking about his awesome solar job and the fact that LePage spent his time in office “putting Maine last for solar jobs in New England,” no one else has done anything but attack Mills on LePage’s behalf. 

In “Kilton,” Maine Conservation Voters employ a more narrative style, invoking a solar farm worker to criticize LePage’s well-known opposition to solar energy development.

Really, he’s being badly outspent. While a little over $7 million has worked to either support him or oppose Mills, that number is nearly $13 million for our sitting governor (and getting bigger as you read). But it’s not entirely surprising: In 2018, a slightly different A Better Maine spent just under $5 million opposing Shawn Moody and supporting Mills, dwarfing any support Moody got, which amounted to roughly $1 million, highlighted by $300,000 from something called the American Comeback Committee in DC. 

If political advertising “works,” Governor Mills should be in good shape to repeat her victory. Unless those menacing messages of out-of-control inflation and “woke-ism” in our schools offer a much better return on investment. 

Thanks to freelance reporter Darren Fishell for his website that tracks outside spending in the governor’s race.

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