Everything’s Coming Up Phil

Speaking in purely political terms, things could hardly be going any better for Gov. Phil Scott.

His solid record on Covid-19, while flawed in some respects and overstated by him and his officials, continues to receive widespread praise. He dominates the political news with his thrice-weekly marathon briefings. His popularity appears to be as high as ever, and many Democrats have already — quietly — conceded his re-election.

And now, the July 1 campaign finance filings are full of good cheer for Scott and bad news for his would-be opponents.

Scott’s own campaign barely raised any money between March 15 and July 1 — a mere $8,000. (He’s raised only $80,000 for the entire campaign cycle.) Not surprising, since he has said he won’t campaign or fundraise until the pandemic is over… which may be sometime in 2024, by the looks of things.

But while he is refraining from the dirty business of politics, his campaign is humming right along. It is deficit spending, mainly to pay Optimus Consulting, a D.C. firm that has done all his strategerizing and media buys in each of his gubernatorial campaigns, a cool $114,500 for its services this year. That represents the bulk of total Scott spending.

Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association waits in the background to inject however much money is needed to ensure a Scott victory. So far, the RGA has funneled $126,000 into its “independent PAC,” A Stronger Vermont. It can easily pump in enough money to overwhelm all other bankrolls in the race, as it did in 2016, when Scott first ran for governor. The RGA spent more than $3 million that year, and effectively knocked Democrat Sue Minter out of contention with a late-summer/early-fall ad blitz. That’s chump change by RGA standards.

(The RGA’s expenditures are purely independent of Scott’s campaign, but paid for so much TV time in 2016 and 2018 that Scott barely had to run any ads of his own.)

And now we know where Scott’s Democratic challengers stand money-wise. It’s not a pretty picture.

Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman raised $130,000 between March 15 and July 1, and a total of $288,000 for the campaign cycle. He’s spent $246,000, which leaves him with about $71,000 in cash on hand (including a $27K surplus carried forward from his 2018 LG campaign). Former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe raised $101,000 for the period and $481,000 for the entire cycle. She has spent $376,000, leaving her with $104,000 in cash.

Zuckerman has a big edge in unique donors with 1,186 to Holcombe’s 688. He’s also picked up his pace of late, while Holcombe has cooled off from her very hot start.

However… both of them are likely to spend big between now and the mid-August primary, and they’re already low on cash. The winner will have to face Scott and the RGA with depleted accounts.

(That’s assuming, as I do, that Scott will win the Republican primary over conservative John Klar, who has raised a paltry $28,000 to date and already spent $17,000. (His take includes a max $4,160 gift from conservative moneybags Lenore Broughton, $3,500 from Jason Stone, who — according to the Federal Election Commission — was a donor to Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign, $500 from commentator John McClaughry and $350 from wannabe Hollywood producer Bradford Broyles.)

(The Democrats’ number-one contender for Mr. Irrelevant, Bennington attorney Patrick Winburn, continues to pour his own money into his campaign and attract little outside support. He’s raised and spent $195,000, virtually all coming from him and his family.)

The pandemic has almost certainly made it a lot harder to ask people for money. Some politicians have refrained from doing so, while others have soft-pedaled their efforts. And, as Christine Hallquist and her fellow Democratic candidates found in 2018, donors are unlikely to give when a Scott victory seems all but assured.

But it is what it is, and the result is two Democratic candidates who are hurting for money. Compare their numbers with Hallquist, who got a very late start in 2018 and had little name recognition. She raised $118,000 between mid-March and July, comparable to Zuckerman and Holcombe — but far from enough to make her competitive with Scott. But the real slap in the face is 2016, when eventual primary winner Sue Minter had raised $729,000 by the July filing deadline — and Matt Dunne, who lost to Minter in the primary, had raised $812,000.

Zuckerman and Holcombe combined have raised substantially less than Dunne, even without adjusting for four years of inflation.

The Democratic Governors Association, meanwhile, has done nothing. Its independent PAC, “Our Vermont,” has reported no income or expenditures so far this year. It’s almost as though the DGA has written off Vermont entirely.

Now, money isn’t the only thing. But it’s a really big thing. The winner of the August primary will have to quickly convince Democratic donors, inside and outside Vermont, that they’ve got a real chance at beating Scott in November. The RGA, which has spent most of its money so far on polling, will be keeping a close eye on things. If Scott shows any signs of weakness, expect the RGA to dump at least a couple million into TV advertising on behalf of Scott — and negative ads against the Democratic nominee.

Scott, meanwhile, sails on above the fray. Let me be clear: He is doing his best to fight the pandemic, and he is perfectly justified in refraining from organized campaign efforts. But Scott abhors the nuts and bolts of campaigning. The coronavirus (and the RGA) allows him to run his dream campaign: Staying in his office, not having to make calls for money, not debating with his opponents, starving them all of the news coverage they need to make a dent in his popularity and name recognition.

It’s too soon to say that Scott is the certain winner. But if the election was held today, he’d win in a walk. And for that to change, a whole lot of things will have to happen in the next few months. Few, if any, of them are in the control of his challengers.

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