Ask Maine State Senator Ed Youngblood what’s changed most since he first ran for office in 2000 and the answer is easy: the money. Back then, legislative races in the state attracted less than a quarter of a million dollars in outside spending. By 2012, political groups were pouring more than $3.5 million into those contests. Much of that swell had to do with the decision that the Supreme Court handed down five years ago today in Citizens United v. FEC, the case that opened the door for unlimited corporate political spending.
Youngblood has always run using Maine’s Clean Election program, which provides public funds for candidates who raise their money from small donors. It got a lot harder to do so after Citizens United, and things got even worse when another court case rolled back the part of Maine’s program that provided matching funds to help candidates deal with all that outside money. “‘We the people’ are rapidly losing control of the whole legislative process because of big money,” Youngblood, a Republican, lamented in an interview last week. “It just keeps growing and growing.”
Maine seems to illustrate a dire state of affairs, with out-of-date rules governing an electoral landscape that has been profoundly altered by unfettered big money. At the federal level campaign finance reform looks increasingly partisan, and with Republicans in control of Congress there’s little hope for movement on any of the several bills Democrats have put forward.
But the real action is at the state and local level, and Maine is actually one of the places where reformers are most hoping for progress. There, Youngblood is one champion in a campaign to strengthen the same public financing program that got him elected. Lawmakers in a number of other states and municipalities are considering proposals ranging from similar public financing programs to stricter disclosure requirements and incentives for small donors. “Efforts to simply restrict big expenditures are going to run afoul of the Supreme Court until we win a constitutional amendment, “ explained Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of the reform group Public Campaign. “In the near term, the most important things we can win right now, the things that will make most change immediately, are small donor-enhancing systems.”
One significant contrast between what’s happening in the states versus what’s not happening in Congress is the willingness of Republicans to work on the issue. Outside the beltway it’s still possible to find people like Youngblood—conservatives who aren’t as sanguine about the undoing of the spending rules as their colleagues in Washington.
Youngblood is particularly outspoken about the corrosive effects of big money in politics and, on the flip side, the benefits of a public financing system. “There is no question that in Maine we have seen a substantial increase in people who are not considered to be well connected and therefore would have found it difficult to raise the funds who choose to run for the legislature because of this program,” he said. “There are more women in the legislature today, more blue-collar workers in the legislature today, and I believe that’s all a result of the Clean Election program.”