Where’d the Big Money Go?

To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early out there. Almost three weeks remain until Election Day, but we’re closing in on 100,000 ballots already cast in Vermont. That’s likely to be between one-third and one-quarter of all the votes. Which means that political spending will be less and less impactful as the ballots keep on rolling in.

So, where’s the big money? It’s absent, for the most part. The next round of campaign finance reports isn’t due until Thursday night, but we’re in the Mass Media reporting window: Within 45 days of an election, any mass media buys over $500 must be reported immediately to the Secretary of State’s office. In recent weeks, there’s little sign of big spends.

This would seem to be terrible news for Scott Milne, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. On September 24, the Republican State Leadership Committee spent $210,000 on TV ads backing Milne. I took it as a sign that national Republicans saw Milne as a credible contender — perhaps even a future successor to Gov. Phil Scott, whenever he rides off into the sunset or Congress, depending.

But the ballots are pouring in, and the RSLC hasn’t spent a dime here in three weeks. Either they have bigger fish to fry, or they’ve decided that Milne is a lost cause.

Despite that poll.

After the jump: a deeper dive into PAC and Super PAC spending. I warned you.

More broadly, the mass media reports show a conspicuous lack of big money. One week ago, the pro-Molly Gray independent PAC Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund reported spending $30,000 on ads attacking Milne. (With a previous $10,000 spent on polling, that’s $40,000 and counting for ABVAF.)

The rest of the mass media list shows a lot of small-bore stuff, and hardly any Super PAC activity. A Stronger Vermont, the Republican Governors Association Super PAC, spent $1,000 on Facebook ads in support of Phil Scott — on August 11 — and not a penny since.

A look at ASV’s financial disclosures shows a hefty investment, but almost all for polling. Of its total $108,000 in spending to date, $101,000 went to pollsters. Presumably the RGA is just keeping an eye on the race, and as long as the polls look good, they won’t buy any ads on the governor’s behalf. Shows you the kind of financial neighborhood the RGA inhabits, that it can drop six figures on a single campaign and not actually invest in it.

ASV also put some money in the pockets of a couple of young Republicans this year. Delaney Courcelle, president of the UVM College Republicans, got $1,435 for “Research.” Shayne Spence, candidate for House in the Lamoille-2 district, was given a total of $1,000 for “Other.”

Our Vermont, the Democratic counterpart of ASV, has received $50,000 from the Democratic Governors Association, but has spent a measly $2.50 so far. Which would seem to support the RGA’s view of the gubernatorial campaign.

The only other hint of national money I can see is a weird one. Make Liberty Win, a conservative Super PAC, reported spending $18,078 on behalf of Rep. Felisha Leffler (R-Enosburg Falls). That’s a lot of money for a state House race, especially for a reasonably safe incumbent. And an odd one-off investment by a D.C.-area organization.

But here’s the weird part. All the money went to PAC Management Services, a D.C.-area firm. It spent $500 on robocalls, $1,000 on brochures, and the rest — $16,579 — was charged to “Media — Consulting.” Which means almost all the money lined its own pockets, and very little went to actual candidate support. Smells a little fishy, no?

There’s been some spending, but not a huge amount, by in-state Super PACs besides ABVAF. The Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund has put out tens of thousands for online ads and postcards in support of 19 Democratic/Progressive House candidates and incumbents. Presumably they’re trying to protect, or even expand, the supermajority that just overturned Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

The Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund has churned through $32,000 without putting any money behind a single candidate. All its expenditures have been for salary, office rent, bank charges and the like. Which made me wonder, where does the “Action” part come in?

“We have released our endorsements, sent out press releases and posted on social media,” explained Eileen Sullivan, PPVAF communications director. “To the extent we would buy advertisements in support of candidates, that’s an ongoing discussion.”

Yeah, well, ask Yogi about that. Seems unlikely they’ll suddenly open the spigot at this point. Maybe they don’t see any real threat to reproductive rights in Vermont. Maybe they’re keeping their powder dry for the constitutional amendment protecting reproductive rights, likely to be on the ballot in 2022. But if I were a donor, I’d be curious about the expense ratio: $32,000 for internal expenses and nothing tangible for candidates.

On the whole, it’s been a quiet year so far for the PACs. Nothing like 2016, when the RGA backed Phil Scott to the tune of $3 million and PPVAF spent $450,000 on ads attacking Scott as a secret pro-lifer (the bulk of the money came from the DGA). We know how well that worked out.

Which speaks to the largely settled appearance of our political scene. The big money says the governor’s race won’t be close. The LG contest has attracted some spending, but not nearly as much as it once appeared. Our other statewide races will amount to coronations for the Dem/Prog incumbents. And the Legislature will continue to feature large Dem/Prog majorities.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me glad to write about Vermont politics. That national stuff, I can scarcely bring myself to pay attention.

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