- Associated Press - Friday, August 22, 2014

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Supporters of Maine gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Cutler can increase the amount that they donate to the independent candidate seeking to unseat Gov. Paul LePage, a federal judge said Friday.

U.S. District Judge D. Brock Hornby ruled in favor of four Cutler campaign donors who said they were being treated unfairly by a state law that prevents them from donating only $1,500 to independent candidates. A person can donate twice as much to Democrats and Republicans because they can accept funds for the general and primary elections - even if the primary is uncontested, as it was this year for the Republican governor and Democrat Mike Michaud.

The decision could pump tens of thousands of additional dollars into the campaign for the independent candidate, who’s largely self-financing his second attempt at becoming Maine governor and is trailing in the polls. He called the ruling a victory for Maine people.

“This ruling eliminates a longstanding fundraising advantage party candidates had over non-party candidates,” he said in a statement Friday. “I am grateful to the citizens who stepped forward to challenge the law and am pleased that Judge Hornby saw the merits of their case.”

Lawyers representing the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, who are defending the state’s law, argued that it was set by the Legislature to prevent corruption and that donors have other ways to support independents, such as contributing to a PAC that supports the candidate.

Democrats and Republicans also have to win the support of their party to prevent a party challenger, which takes “effort and expense,” the state’s lawyers said in court documents.

Furthermore, the lack of uncontested primaries this year was an “anomaly,” they said. The last time candidates in neither major party had a primary opponent was in 1990.

Hornby said that the state failed to show that the limit was needed to prevent corruption and that while a primary may result in additional candidate expenditures, “it is not a reason for treating contributors differently.”

“The plaintiffs’ rights to exercise their First Amendment rights equally with other contributors should not be delayed,” he said.

Cutler, an attorney from Cape Elizabeth, has put nearly $1 million of his own money into his campaign, according to the latest finance reports.

As of last month’s report, he had $527,000 cash on hand, compared with $915,000 for LePage and more than $1 million for Michaud.

Melissa Hewey, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said it’s unclear whether the decision means that only those who have donated $1,500 already will be able to double their contributions or if all people contributing to Cutler will be allowed to donate $3,000.

In a statement, Michaud campaign manager Matt McTighe urged the ethics commission to make an emergency ruling stating that all candidates will now be able to collect as much as $3,000 per donor, even though the primary has passed.

Hornby said he was expressing no view on whether the commission should alter its rules on that issue.

The ruling is a preliminary injunction, which means the Cutler campaign can begin receiving more donations as soon as the details are worked out, Hewey said.

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