When Buxton high school teacher Jim Libby (R) decided to make a run for the Maine governor's mansion, there was one thing he didn't have that all candidates need: money.
Fortunately, the state of Maine has what's called the Clean Elections Act. A candidate choosing to "run clean
can raise up to $50,000 in $100 contributions (Libby raised $13,000), but since that isn't really enough to mount a campaign, he can also qualify for funds equivalent to those raised by his opponent. All he need do is collect 2,500 checks or money orders in the amount of $5 each, all payable to the state.
But explaining to voters that their money is supporting the democratic process, and not the candidate directly, is not as simple as it sounds. "You have to repeat three or four times that the check goes to this fund so people can run campaigns without having to take special-interest money,
says Libby for Governor communications director Colby Wallace. And it's even harder to sell Republicans on the idea, he laments.
Which is why with less than three weeks before the April 16 deadline, Libby's Clean Elections fund was about 700 checks short. Without them, he wouldn't qualify to receive $300,000 in campaign funds from the state for the primary.
"It's a lot harder to get people to give you $5 than it seems," Wallace claims. "We needed to get 800 to 1,000 checks from our volunteers and other loyal supporters, but they weren't stepping up to the plate."
Already having gone door to door, meeting with industry associations, and putting inserts in newspapers, Libby's campaign staff needed a new plan - one that would emphasize the level of desperation, and show Maine Republicans that without their support, Libby would probably have to drop out of the race before it would even begin.
Libby's staff realized that the campaign needed the media's help in spreading the word that they needed more checks. The problem, however, was that the major Maine newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, is a liberal outlet.
"With newspapers, it has to be news,
Wallace explains. "We realized that it's funny watching someone hurt themselves, like someone walking down the street who trips and falls. If you can sell someone on the idea that it's funny to watch someone fail, that's news to them, and then they'll carry it."
As such, Libby's communications staff felt it logical to assume that telling a liberal newspaper that a Republican candidate was likely to fail would result in a major story - and possibly kick Libby's supporters into high gear.
On April 2, the Press Herald bought the idea. "The tone of the story was that if he didn't make it, he was in trouble,
Wallace explains. "The phone started ringing, and all those who were supposed to be getting us checks, all of a sudden did. They started coming in at 70-100 a day," Wallace claims.
The Libby for Governor campaign reached its goal of 2,500 checks less than a week after the story ran in the Press Herald, and turned in a total of 2,680 $5 contributions before the deadline (the extras accounted for possible duplicates, contributors not registered to vote, etc.). On April 26, the state certified Libby to "run clean,
and put $300,000 in his campaign fund on April 29. He'll use the money to oppose fellow Republican Peter Cianchette in the June primary.
A gubernatorial candidate running under the Clean Elections Act can qualify for a maximum of $1.2 million in state funds. So if Libby wins the primary, he'll get another $900,000 from the state to run in the main election against unopposed Democrat John Baldacci (who raised his own funds). The Green Party candidate, Jonathan Carter, also collected 2,500 checks, and will also receive $1.2 million from the state (Baldacci supporters are currently challenging Carter's certification).
Meanwhile, four other states have passed clean election laws that will be phased in over the next few years. And 30 other states are currently considering passing similar legislation, Wallace claims.