Susan Collins' ads seem to feature ordinary people — but don't reveal their ties to Maine GOP

Collins has failed to disclose testimonials from state legislators, party officials and even her own staffers

Published August 1, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Sen. Susan Collins (Getty/Alex Wong)
Sen. Susan Collins (Getty/Alex Wong)

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican facing a tough re-election race, has run numerous ads over the last three months featuring testimonials from more than 20 people who were presented as ordinary Mainers — but in fact had close ties to the state's Republican Party or to Collins herself. While such deception is not obviously illegal, it's intentionally misleading and suggests that Collins has had trouble attracting supporters outside a tight circle of Maine Republicans.

This wasn't the first time that Collins' 2020 campaign has committed an unforced video error. Last summer her campaign drew sardonic criticism after posting several minutes of B-roll of the senator meeting with Mainers in factories, a classroom, a kitchen and so on. The video was mocked as a transparent gift of content for outside groups, which could amount to a campaign finance violation.

This year, however, the campaign might catch flak for a July 30 campaign ad that features lobsterman and small business owner Wayne Parry accusing Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House and Collins' Democratic opponent, of "not being honest" about her criticism of the Paycheck Protection Program.

The ad informs the viewer that Parry is a lobsterman from the town of Arundel, but does not mention that Parry also served as a Republican State House representative from 2010 to 2018, and is on the ballot as a candidate again in 2020.

Back in May, the Collins campaign put out a paid social media testimonial from a GOP selectman named Ryan Lorrain, without disclosing his party affiliation. Lorrain had written a letter to the Lewiston Sun Journal in October 2018 praising Collins' "stand against the media and the political left" during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing.

"What she did took courage that few people in politics have shown," Lorrain wrote. "I encourage others in the public eye to look to her example for handling controversy in a professional and accurate way."

The campaign ran a paid social media testimonial in May from former Maine GOP chair Mark Ellis. In 2010, Ellis worked as political director on the gubernatorial campaign of Steve Abbott, who now serves as Collins' chief of staff.

Another Collins-funded social media testimonial that month came from Bill and Jamie Logan, whose daughter, Jessie, once worked in Collins' Senate office in Bangor. Their personal connection to the candidate was not disclosed.

In July, former Maine House member and state Republican Party executive director Julie O'Brien gave a Facebook testimonial for Collins' campaign. In 2017, her son, Cameron, was hired as a legislative aide in Collins' Washington office.

Collins' campaign posted in April a testimonial from Ashley Luszczki, who worked as policy director for former Republican State Sen. Michael Thibodeau, president of the Maine Senate from 2014 to 2018. Luszczki's bio says she previously worked as the finance executive for the Maine Republican Party.

In May the campaign ran a testimonial from the husband of former Maine State Sen. Amy Volk, and another from Zach Woods, a Republican selectman from Levant.

The campaign featured K.C. Hughes in a July testimonial, without disclosing that Hughes was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for a Maine House seat in 2019. In May, another Republican candidate for a State House seat, Merle Parise, vouched for Collins in a video posted to the campaign's Facebook page. In April, Collins' Facebook featured a video endorsement from Gordon Page of Owls Head — who is currently running to represent District 12 in the Maine State Senate — as well as video testimony from serving State Sen. Stacey Guerin of Glenburn, who is also on the ballot in November. 

Collins ran three testimonials from young Mainers in June 2020 without disclosing their connections to her Senate office or the Maine GOP.

Meredith Coolidge of Yarmouth gave a testimonial after working as a summer intern in the senator's Washington office. Zach Mills of Gorham spoke for Collins' campaign after working as a summer intern in her Portland office. And TJ Rogers of Brewer contributed a spot after working as a regional field director for the Maine Republican Party.

Yet another former Collins staffer, Chris Philbrook, appeared in a recent digital ad. Philbrook's LinkedIn says he served as national finance director for Collins' 2008 Senate campaign.

The testimonials have also featured a number of controversial Maine Republicans, some of whom have voiced conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic.

In July, Collins' Facebook page featured a testimonial from former GOP State House member Kathleen Chase, who has recently dismissed the science behind COVID-19 safety guidelines. That same month, Chase shared a Facebook post calling on Americans to "fight back" against public health guidelines such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing, which the post claimed were put in place so the government could "rule over" citizens.

In June, Collins published a video testimonial from former Republican State House candidate Thomas White, who has made caustic comments about abortion rights and Brett Kavanaugh.

White said that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh's principal accuser, was an "emotionally unstable woman." He also called the #MeToo movement the "weaponization of victimhood" and compared it to the Salem witch trials. The Maine Beacon reported that in July 2018, White "shared a graphic criticizing women who have abortions for 'escaping the consequences of your choices by taking all choices away from another human being.'"

Another Collins testimonial this June featured Cumberland Town Council member Mike Edes. In 2014, Edes ran as the Democratic candidate for Cumberland sheriff, and was accused of illegally coordinating with a political action committee funded by a wealthy Portland real estate developer and Republican donor. No investigation was opened.

Former Maine Sen. Andre Cushing, who resigned from the State Senate in 2018 amid multiple ethics scandals, appeared in a Collins social media testimonial this May. Cushing had been accused of misusing business funds and campaign funds, and was ordered to pay a $9,000 fine to the Maine Ethics Commission for 11 campaign finance reports filed late in the two years between 2014 and 2016. The civil case is currently pending.

In May, Collins' Facebook posted a video testimonial from Dick Pickett of Dixfield, without disclosing that Pickett has represented Maine's 116th State House district as a Republican since 2014. The next month, Pickett published an op-ed in the Maine Examiner calling Democratic Gov. Janet Mills' economic shutdown orders "dictatorial."

Collins also featured a testimonial that month from Maine GOP Secretary Barbara Harvey, whose role in the Republican Party was not disclosed. Harvey published two separate op-eds on the same day in September 2018 defending Collins' vote to confirm Kavanaugh, extolling the nominee's "exemplary judiciary temperament" as something "the founding fathers would have taken great pride in."

And last but not least, the Collins campaign posted in May a testimonial from former Republican Maine State House member Brian Hobart. In June, Hobart posted a Facebook message telling Black Lives Matter protesters to "quit bitching."

"Stay in your own lane. Quit bitching. Mind your own business. Be thankful for what you have. Don't keep looking for the truth because you couldn't handle the truth if you found it," Hobart wrote.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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