WATERVILLE, Maine — Martha Madden stood behind the counter in Joe’s Smoke Shop, a longtime corner store in this central Maine city, shaking her head with a bemused, what-can-I-do-about-it smile.
“The local Maine ads have been vicious," Madden, 32, said of the seemingly incessant campaign spots for Senate and president. “I’m very excited for it to be almost over with."
A couple of streets over, 74-year-old Harry Isbister from nearby Oakland made no attempt to disguise his disgust with an ultralong political season that is drawing, at last, to a close.
“Everybody’s sick of the campaign. Everybody can’t wait for the end," Isbister said, punctuating his words with contempt. “I’ve seen elections where they make little nasty cracks, but nothing like this. Get it over with.”
Indeed, nothing quite like this has ever been seen in Maine. Bombarded with an unprecedented barrage of television ads and a drumbeat of vitriol among the candidates and their supporters, many voters in Maine — like elsewhere across the country — have had enough.
“It’s sort of like we’re in the town of Woodstock" during the 1969 music festival, said Dan Shea, chair of the government department at Colby College in Waterville. “At first it was exciting, but now it’s the third day and we’ve grown weary. It’s muddy, and it’s ugly."
In Maine, the biggest reason for the advertising tsunami has been the Senate race between Republican incumbent Susan Collins and Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House. With control of the Senate in the balance, more than $160 million has been poured into the contest, a state record whose reach is amplified by Maine’s relatively inexpensive media market.
Commercial breaks have become a mind-numbing succession of ads — sometimes three 30-second spots toggling between candidates over a two-minute span. Some of those ads, in groan-inducing “Groundhog Day” fashion, fill the screen yet again during the next break.
“I’m just done with it," said Samantha Feenstra, 22, of Cape Elizabeth.
Shea estimated that ads for the Senate race, where polls show Gideon with a small lead, outnumber those for the presidential election by at least 10 to 1.
“I don’t think any side thinks they can let up," Shea said. "Any sort of hint that you’re fading away online, or on the airwaves, or in direct mail can be fatal.”
One attack ad for Collins, shown five times over 45 minutes on one TV channel last weekend, claims that Gideon did not act quickly on information that former Democratic state representative Dillon Bates allegedly engaged in inappropriate behavior with students at a Portland girls school.
The former lawmaker, who has denied any wrongdoing and not been charged with a crime, resigned in August 2018. The resignation came 17 days after Gideon asked him to step down, but months after she had learned of the allegations, according to the campaign commercial aired by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Gideon’s team has denounced the ad, saying the speaker was the first official to call for Bates to resign once the allegations became public. The Gideon campaign also released a response ad in which the narrator says, “This is a lie and Susan Collins knows it.”
Gideon’s campaign, for its part, is portraying Collins as a lackey for Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and an opponent of the Affordable Care Act.
The Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks advertising by federal and gubernatorial candidates, said Maine is host to the most negative Senate race in the country. In September, 49.7 percent of Gideon’s television ads were “pure attack” commercials against Collins, according to the project. The senator’s corresponding rate was 35.6 percent.
About 90 percent of the money for those commercials and other campaign expenses come from outside Maine, underscoring the race’s national implications.
Gideon raised $39.4 million in the third quarter of 2020, the second-highest total raised in any quarter by any Senate candidate in history, according to the Bangor Daily News. The $8.3 million reported by the Collins campaign for that quarter would have set a Maine record if not for Gideon’s haul.
Richard and Diane Grandmaison, a Lewiston couple who have been married 57 years, bemoaned the enormous amounts of money that are financing the wave of ads.
“All the ads are so negative,” said Richard Grandmaison, 77, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a former business manager for the sheet-metal union in Maine.
The couple already had voted for Gideon, but they attended a health care forum she held last week under a socially distanced, outdoor venue in Lewiston. They feel Gideon’s ads have been more restrained than those from Collins, but they still would like to see less outside money in politics.
Diane Grandmaison, a former board member for the Maine Alliance for Retired Americans, said she is supporting Gideon’s campaign “because of our grandchildren. We don’t see a future for them."
The country’s increasing polarization has led to harsher rhetoric and intolerance that can have far-reaching consequences, she said.
"They’re turning around and bullying in school because they’re following that example,” Grandmaison said.
Following the forum, Gideon acknowledged in an interview that the race has been aggressive.
"Oh, I wish it wasn’t,” she said. “It is negative; there is no way around that.”
“For Mainers, this is a race that is unlike anything that we have ever experienced before, and it’s really tough," Gideon added. "It’s not easy to be a voter in a state where control of the Senate is dependent on you.”
If voters are fatigued, Gideon said, it’s not only because of wall-to-wall campaigning. The stakes involved in the election and the stress caused by the pandemic have played major roles as well.
“I think there is an incredible deep drive — and maybe ‘enthusiasm’ is not the right word — but a need to participate and to make change,” Gideon said.
“There is fatigue out there — voter fatigue, sure — but political fatigue, life fatigue, pandemic fatigue, feeling like somebody’s not operating in their best interests over years and years," she said. "It’s larger than just voter fatigue.”
A spokeswoman for Collins agreed that voters are tired, but from a barrage of attack ads.
Gideon and national Democrats “have spent two years and tens of millions of dollars on negative ads that accuse Senator Collins of being a liar, a thief, and a criminal," spokeswoman Annie Clark said. “We’re confident that Mainers will see through it and reelect Susan Collins."
Feenstra, the Cape Elizabeth woman, said she will vote despite the negativity, the confusing noise from social media, and the draining length of an often-irritating process.
“It’s been a lot of learning for me the last four years," Feenstra said of the attention she’s paid to politics.
With that experience has come a lesson she’d like others to consider.
“I want people to start listening to each other. I want people trying to understand," Feenstra said. "Even if they don’t agree.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.