By Dave Sherwood
BOWDOINHAM Maine (Reuters) - An independent candidate in Maine's three-way governor's race is waiting on a ruling expected next week from a federal judge on a suit that contends the state's campaign finance law unfairly favors candidates from the two major U.S. parties.
Lawyers for four supporters of candidate Eliot Cutler who filed the suit argued this week in U.S. District Court in Portland that Maine election law violates First and 14th Amendment rights to free speech, equal protection and political expression by allowing individuals to donate twice as much to major-party candidates as to independents.
In Maine, individuals can donate up to $1,500 to candidates in each primary and general election campaigns for a total of $3,000, but plaintiffs say independents, who do not participate in primaries, are limited to just $1,500.
"Why don't these ordinary citizens have the right to support their candidate as strongly as people who support candidates for one of the major parties?" asked Melissa Hewey, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Maine Assistant Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner, arguing on behalf of the state on Tuesday, said the Maine legislature had clearly distinguished between individual elections and election cycles, and that restrictions on each apply equally to all donors.
"We see no evidence of Cutler supporters being unfairly discriminated against," Gardiner said. "This may be a policy question for the legislature, but there's no constitutional requirement here."
Cutler donors, Gardiner said, were also free to continue to contribute to the candidate’s political action committee.
"Some of the plaintiffs who have already reached their campaign maximum have also given to the PACs set up on his behalf," she said.
In the 2010 gubernatorial election, Cutler, an attorney, won more votes than his Democratic opponent but lost to Republican Paul LePage by just 2 percentage points.
This year, polls show incumbent LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud, who would be the country’s first governor to declare he is gay before taking office, in a statistical dead heat, with Cutler trailing.
Observers said the judge's ruling is unlikely to unleash a flood of donations but could set a new precedent.
"We’ve had the two major parties writing our campaign laws, and they’ve really stacked the deck in their favor, making it difficult for third parties to compete,” said Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine. "This could change things."
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Scott Malone and Eric Beech)