PORTLAND, Maine – A local district attorney's race in Maine wasn't generating much attention until a political action committee linked to a deep-pocketed liberal donor with international name recognition suddenly took an interest.
A super PAC funded by George Soros, the billionaire investor, philanthropist and conspiracy-theory target, dropped $300,000 on behalf of the challenger, dwarfing the $70,000 combined that had been raised by both candidates until then.
The cash infusion — a stunning sum for a local race in Maine — shows how national groups are seeking to influence district attorney's contests across the country. The spending highlights a mostly under-the-radar jostling for control of an office that some see as being on the front lines of the movement for criminal justice reforms.
Left-leaning groups have stepped in to fund candidates who support those reforms, while conservatives are pushing back amid concerns that crime in America's cities is out of control.
Whitney Tymas, president of the Justice & Public Safety PAC, which supports progressive district attorney candidates, said political money is necessary to bring change to an office that is overwhelmingly white and male, and where most incumbents run unopposed for reelection.
“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 Tymas' political action committee, which has been sending mailings in advance of Tuesday's primary attacking incumbent Jonathan Sahrbeck, a Democrat. It also has been mailing fliers in favor Democratic challenger Jacqueline Sartoris.
Sahrbeck called on his opponent to denounce the ads and described the spending amount in the county that includes Maine's most populous city, Portland, as “outrageous.”
“Folks in Cumberland County should be disgusted by this attempt to buy this race,” he said in a statement.
The spending is not unique to Maine.
Money also poured into this week's recall election that gave the boot to San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a Democrat. Among other things, Boudin's critics said he had failed to prosecute repeat offenders.
Boudin’s supporters raised more than $3 million, with money coming from the ACLU and Real Justice, a political action committee that has supported more than 50 progressives running for prosecutors’ positions across the U.S. over the past five years.
Opponents had raised at least $7 million, with the majority of that coming from an organization fueled by large donations from individuals, 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 seeking cash bail and not trying juveniles as adults. While many crime numbers are lower since he took office less than three years ago, the city has been shaken by a spate of attacks against Asian-Americans, smash-and-grab retail robberies and open drug use on the streets.
While Soros-funded groups did not play a role in the San Francisco recall, the billionaire has spent sizable sums in other states.
In Arkansas, some $321,000 from Soros flowed through a PAC in a failed attempt to help Alicia Walton beat Will Jones in a race last month for prosecutor in a judicial district that includes Little Rock, the state capital. Special interest money cut both ways in the race to fill an open seat, with a pair of Republican billionaires spending $316,000 to support Jones.
The outside money funded direct-mail ads to voters. One from the Soros-backed group misleadingly suggested Jones was anti-victim by using portions of a quote from his argument before jurors when he prosecuted a man on trial for rape. Jurors convicted the man in the 2008 case.
Fair Courts America, the super PAC supporting Jones, sent a mailer calling Walton “soft on crime” and criticizing her work as a public defender.
Soros-funded groups also have gotten 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 filings. The group paid for TV ads to promote Benton and criticize Knox, who was supported by more than $200,000 in independent expenditures from a group funded mostly by police organizations.
In Iowa’s Polk County, which includes Des Moines, the Justice & Public Safety PAC spent at least $136,000 on behalf of Kimberly Graham as she defeated two other Democrats running for county attorney in this week’s primary, filings show. The seat is open for the first time in more than 30 years.
Soros has donated billions of dollars over the years in support of liberal and anti-authoritarian causes. The Hungarian-American has been the subject of conspiracy theories spread by right-wing groups, as well as antisemitic attacks.
Earlier this year, he gave more than $125 million to Democracy PAC II to spend on midterm elections and said in a statement that he was looking to make a “long-term investment” in races nationwide.
Races for local district attorneys have been gaining attention because those offices are often at the center of debates over law enforcement reforms and problems in the criminal justice system, which incarcerates poor people and people of color at higher rates.
A study released this month by the Prosecutors and Politics Project at the University of North Carolina Law School showed money and incumbency play important roles in local district attorney's races in 45 states where they’re elected.
Incumbents usually don’t face a challenger, and 38% of them won contested elections even when the challenger raised more money, the study found. Challengers won only 20% of the time when they lost the fundraising battle. The study focused on individual fundraising, not independent expenditures on a candidate’s behalf.
“It takes a lot of money for a challenger to be able to break through and have a chance at winning,” said Carisssa Hessick, director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project.
The stakes are high in Maine's primary election.
Because both district attorney candidates are running as Democrats, and there are no other candidates, the race effectively will be decided during Tuesday's primary.
Sartoris, an assistant district attorney in another county, told the AP that the outside donations show the importance of the job — and recognize that she’s the “only lifelong Democrat” in the race.
She said she stands for Democratic values by seeking to address underreported crimes such as sexual assault and hate crimes and helping those struggling with substance use disorder. She vowed to “finally take seriously questions of racial disparities in charging and convictions.”
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 he's registered as a Democrat, an attack ad noted he won the previous race for district attorney as an independent.
Sahrbeck said the community would be much better served if the $300,000 linked to Soros was being spent on addressing homelessness, substance use disorder and mental health issues.
Sartoris said she can't accept responsibility for independent spending over which she has no control.
“I’m responsible for my campaign,” she said. “He’s responsible for his.”
DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas, and Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.