PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The run for a local district attorney in Maine wasn’t getting much attention until a political action committee tied to a deep-pocketed liberal donor with a recognition of international name is suddenly interested in it.
A super PAC funded by George Soros, the billionaire investor, philanthropist and conspiracy theory target, dropped $300,000 on behalf of the challenger, eclipsing the combined $70,000 that had been raised by the two candidates so far .
The injection of cash — a mind-boggling sum for a local race in Maine — shows how national groups are seeking to influence district attorney contests across the country. The spending highlights a mostly under-the-radar scramble for control of an office that some see as being at the forefront of the movement for criminal justice reforms.
Left-wing groups have stepped in to fund candidates who support those reforms, while conservatives are pushing back, fearing crime in American cities is spiraling out of control.
Whitney Tymas, president of the Justice & Public Safety PAC, which backs progressive district attorney candidates, said political money was needed to make changes to a predominantly white, male office where most incumbents run. unopposed for re-election.
“It takes real money to meet this moment,” said Tymas, who leads political action committees funding races in Maine and several other states.
In Maine, a Soros-backed super PAC funneled the $300,000 windfall to the Tymas Political Action Committee, which sent mailings ahead of Tuesday’s leading incumbent, Jonathan Sahrbeck, a Democrat. He also sent flyers supporting Democratic challenger Jacqueline Sartoris.
Sahrbeck called on his opponent to speak out against the ads and described the amount of spending in the county that includes Maine’s most populous city, Portland, as “outrageous.”
“The people of Cumberland County should be disgusted by this attempt to buy this race,” he said in a statement.
Spending is not unique to Maine.
The money also poured into this week’s recall election that kicked San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a Democrat. Among other things, Boudin’s critics said he did not prosecute repeat offenders.
Boudin supporters have raised more than $3 million, with money coming from the ACLU and Real Justice, a political action committee that has backed more than 50 progressives vying for prosecutorial positions across the United States over the past five years.
Opponents had raised at least $7 million, the majority of which came from an organization fueled by large private donations, including more than $500,000 each from San Francisco investors Jean-Pierre Conte and William Oberndorf.
Boudin was elected on a platform of reducing incarceration and had implemented policies against asking for cash bail and non-judgment of minors as adults. With many crime figures down since he took office less than three years ago, the city has been rocked by a series of attacks on Asian Americans, retail robberies and open drug use on the streets.
While Soros-funded groups played no part in the San Francisco recall, the billionaire spent considerable sums in other states.
In Arkansas, some $321,000 from Soros flowed through a PAC in an unsuccessful attempt to help Alicia Walton beat Will Jones in a race last month for prosecutor in a judicial district that includes Little Rock, La state capital. Special interest money has cut back and forth in the race to fill a vacant seat, with a pair of Republican billionaires spending $316,000 to support Jones.
Outside money funded direct mail advertisements to voters. One of the members of the Soros-backed group erroneously suggested that Jones was anti-victim by using excerpts from a quote from his argument before a jury when he sued a man on trial for rape. Jurors convicted the man in the 2008 case.
Fair Courts America, the super PAC supporting Jones, sent a letter calling Walton “soft on crime” and criticizing his work as a public defender.
Soros-funded groups have also become involved in at least two other local prosecutor races. In northern California’s Contra Costa County, California Justice & Public Safety PAC spent at least $950,000 to help District Attorney Diana Benton fend off challenger Mary Knox in this week’s Democratic primary, according to an Associated Press analysis of campaign finance records. The group paid for television ads to promote Benton and criticize Knox, which was supported by more than $200,000 in independent spending from a group funded primarily by police organizations.
In Polk County, Iowa, which includes Des Moines, the Justice & Public Safety PAC spent at least $136,000 on Kimberly Graham’s behalf as she defeated two other Democratic county prosecutor candidates in a of this week’s primary show. The headquarters is open for the first time in over 30 years.
Soros has donated billions of dollars over the years to support liberal and anti-authoritarian causes. The Hungarian-American has been the subject of conspiracy theories propagated by right-wing groups, as well as anti-Semitic attacks.
Earlier this year, he gave more than $125 million to Democracy PAC II to spend on the midterm elections and said in a statement he was looking to make a “long-term investment” in the races. national scale.
The races for local district attorneys have drawn attention because these offices are often at the center of debates over law enforcement reforms and problems with the criminal justice system, which incarcerates the poor and people of color. at higher rates.
A study released this month by the University of North Carolina Law School’s Prosecutors and Politics Project showed that money and tenure play a significant role in local prosecutor races in 45 States where they are elected.
Incumbents don’t typically face a challenger, and 38% of them won contested elections even when the challenger raised more money, the study found. Challengers only won 20% of the time when they lost the fundraising battle. The study focused on individual fundraising, not independent spending on behalf of a candidate.
“It takes a lot of money for a challenger to break through and have a chance of winning,” said Carisssa Hessick, director of the prosecutors and policy project.
The stakes are high in Maine’s primary election.
Since both district attorney candidates are running as Democrats and there are no other candidates, the race will effectively be decided in Tuesday’s primary.
Sartoris, an assistant district attorney in another county, told the AP that the outside donations showed the importance of the work — and acknowledged she was the “only lifelong Democrat” in the race.
She said she stands up for Democratic values by seeking to address under-reported crimes such as sexual assault and hate crimes and helping those struggling with substance use disorders. She vowed to “finally take issues of racial disparities in charging and sentencing seriously.”
Sahrbeck said he has worked on practical reforms in some of those same areas and organized training to examine implicit bias, racism, racial equity and inclusion.
While registered as a Democrat, an attack ad noted that he had won the previous district attorney race as an independent.
Sahrbeck said the community would be much better served if the $300,000 tied to Soros was spent on addressing homelessness, substance use disorders and mental health issues.
Sartoris said she could not accept responsibility for independent expenses over which she had no control.
“I am in charge of my campaign,” she said. “He is responsible for his own.”
DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas and Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.