Group using fake name to survey Mainers on culture war issues

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Jul. 19—A national conservative group used an assumed name to conduct a political survey over the weekend that asked Mainers charged questions about welfare for illegal immigrants, critical race theory and gender issues.

The name chosen for the survey — "Maine Today & Public Insight" — led some to believe it was being conducted by MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel.

In fact, a national conservative group called the American Principles Project is behind the survey. And the organization already has produced a cache of anti-Gov. Janet Mills advertisements that soon could be deployed in Maine depending on the survey results, said Terry Schilling, the group's president.

"This is just like a poll, except instead of polling a question we're polling messages and advertisements," said Schilling, who said his group seeks to protect children from indoctrination. "We're going to look at how effective they are and then make a decision about whether or not to get involved in the election in Maine."

Schilling said he did not know why the people who deployed the survey used the name Maine Today.

Steve Greenlee, executive editor of the Press Herald, called on the group to stop using the newspaper's name.

"Everyone knows that MaineToday Media is the company that publishes the Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel," Greenlee said in a written statement. "Misappropriating the name of a news organization in an attempt to legitimatize a survey is unacceptable and unethical, and we demand that whoever is behind this cease doing so immediately."

The use of "Public Insight" in the survey title also suggests a former local research firm, Critical Insights, which has conducted political polling in the past, including for the Press Herald. That firm was bought by a rival, which releases a biannual "Critical Insights on Maine" public opinion poll.

The American Principles Project has so far only conducted message-testing and research in Maine, but has not reached out to voters, Schilling said. He said he did not know how many people received the survey.

The group is planning to get involved in races around the country and has raised about $9 million for the 2022 midterm election cycle, Schilling said. Maine is one of seven states where the group is looking to invest, he said. The others are Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

The survey and the cache of ready-made ads highlights how powerful, monied out-of-state forces are likely gearing up for a brutal advertising onslaught this fall to sway undecided voters in the race between Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage, who is seeking a third non-consecutive term. The survey tackles some of the most controversial issues here and nationally — transgender rights, critical race theory and welfare for noncitizens.

AD ATTACKS MILLS

The online survey asked about 30 questions, including those seeking demographic and party affiliation. Respondents were shown a very short clip of an ad attacking Mills for supporting LGBTQ education in schools. The clip is entitled "Janet Mills Sex changes." The survey states the ad was "randomly chosen from ads that have run in your area" and that the question was intended to study media consumption and knowledge.

The poll then asks whether respondents oppose or support teaching critical race theory in public schools, teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, allowing transgender girls to compete in girls' sports, banning "puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and physical sex change surgeries for children under the age of 18 who identify as transgender," and giving welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. The survey did not define illegal immigrants.

The ad cited in the poll was posted to Schilling's YouTube account, where four other ads dealing with the topics asked about in the poll itself also are posted. The ads criticize Mills and express support for LePage. However, the ads are categorized as "unlisted," which means they are not available to the general public and can only be viewed by clicking a direct link.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, which oversees campaign finance laws in the state, said his office had not received any complaints about the survey. He said it can be difficult to discern whether a legitimate poll is testing a message that may be used in an upcoming campaign or an illegal push poll, which does not seek to gather information and instead seeks to sway voters by broadcasting either negative or positive characterizations of a specific candidate, usually late in the lead up to an election.

TESTING A MESSAGE?

Wayne said his office encourages the disclosure of organizations conducting political polls, even if that disclosure is not required under state law. He declined to speculate about whether the weekend poll would require any disclosure to the public about who paid for it.

"If it's part of a mailing or advertising campaign, and it is known at the time the research is being conducted that it's is going to inform some electioneering communication at a later time, then it would probably need to be reported (as campaign spending)," Wayne said. "But if it was done for other (research) purposes, it may not need to be reported in campaign finance reports, so it all depends on the facts."

Brent Littlefield, LePage's campaign strategist, said his team was not behind the poll and had no knowledge who might be. Candidates are prohibited from coordinating with outside groups during campaigns and are subject to strict campaign financing laws.

A spokesperson for the Maine Republican Party said they had no knowledge of the APP poll.

The Maine Republican Party's platform opposes these issues and the party itself took Mills to task for a videotaped lesson for kindergarteners about LGBTQ identity that was posted on a state website. The Maine Department of Education later removed the video, which was one of roughly 400 optional online instructional videos teachers created for remote learners during the pandemic.

At the time, a spokesperson for Mills said the governor respects the LGBTQ+ community, but also "understands the concerns expressed about the age appropriateness, and agrees with the Department of Education's decision to remove the lesson." She also noted that school curriculum is decided by local school boards, not the state, and that Mills "will continue to respect LGBTQ+ people as valued members of the Maine community."

SIMILAR ADS IN OTHER RACES

APP has run similar ads in other races in the U.S. The YouTube channel for the American Principles Project Political Action Committee channel has an ad targeting Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, seeking to tie her to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and nemesis for Republicans, for sponsoring a transgender rights bill that "would destroy women's sports," allow men to take scholarships from women athletes and "put men in girls locker rooms."

The PAC has a similar ad targeting Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Michigan, saying he supports "harmful transgender legislation." The ad calls him a "sellout Republican" and, after repeating the same attacks against transgender rights, asks the viewer, "Would you trust Meijer with your daughter?"

Schilling said APP would use the survey results to decide which ads — if any — they will run in Maine. If the ads seem effective, they will likely air soon, rather than as a last-minute hit, he said.

"We don't do October surprises," Schilling said. "We like to go up early. We like to get them into the news cycle. And we like to generate earned media around the ads to get them even more exposure."