In case you were wondering why all the commotion last night — the rowdy partying, the fireworks, the parades, the desperate closing-time hookups — well, the mid-October campaign finance reports are in.
There’s nothing that changes the complexion of the Vermont political season, but there are a lot of fascinating details. Let’s get started!
The Governor is in cruise control. Phil Scott’s campaign didn’t even break a sweat in the first half of October. He pulled in $41K, bringing his campaign total to a measly $376K. (For those just joining us, conventional wisdom has it that you need at least seven figures to seriously compete, and $2 million is a better starting point.) What’s really telling, though, is that he only spent $14K in the past two weeks. He did a bunch of small newspaper ad buys and no TV. He didn’t pay a dime to his big national campaign outfit, Optimus Consulting. He has over $100,000 in the bank, and shows no sign of making a serious dent in it.
Zuckerman fights the good fight. The Democratic/Progressive nominee is a spider monkey battling a gorilla: Impressively crafty, but likely to get squashed. Zuckerman raised a healthy $62K in the two weeks since October 1, for a campaign total of $629K. And there’s the problem: it’s really not enough money to fuel a statewide campaign against an entrenched incumbent.
If you look at his donor list, you see where his problem lies. He’s getting a ton of small gifts, but the Democratic power players are sitting it out.
Look at these numbers. Scott has 1,141 unique donors, and has taken in 768 “small” donations of $100 or less. Zuckerman has 5,234 donors, and has accepted 6,055 donations of $100 or less. (The latter number is higher because many of his donors have made multiple gifts.)
Even with Scott’s late entry into active campaigning because of the coronavirus, those are some telling numbers. Despite his broad popularity, Scott doesn’t have people lining up to give him money. Zuckerman has a much larger base of enthusiastic donors.
But his problem is, he isn’t getting the big money to augment the small fry. The state’s two largest public sector unions wrote big checks to Beth Pearce, Doug Hoffer, Jim Condos and TJ Donovan — but nothing, as far as I can tell, for Zuckerman.
Meanwhile, Democratic megadonor Jane Stetson donated $500 to Zuckerman’s campaign. That’s a buck in the tip jar for Stetson. If she was committed, she and her husband WIlliam would have each kicked in the maximum $4,160.
That’s only one data point, but it illustrates the disconnect between Zuckerman and the Democratic moneybags. He also, apparently, hasn’t received any money from Vermont’s Congressional delegation. (Bernie has done his bit for Zuckerman on the intangible front, but no direct contributions.)
Zuckerman has received a healthy $13,000 from the Vermont Progressive Party, which makes the absence of Democratic cash all the more glaring. And he’s given $22K to his own campaign. He’s needed every dime.
Still to come: The LG race and the PACs, including a surprise entry for most impactful PAC of the cycle.
On the spending side, Zuckerman pulled out his shotgun: Wide dispersal without much firepower. In the first half of the month, he spent $58K on TV plus he made a $25K TV buy on 10/16. He also devoted $2800 to print ads and a noteworthy $10K on radio ads. I don’t recall any other statewide candidate spending more than a token amount on broadcast radio. As I wrote before, it’s an old-timey strategy for a progressive candidate. By my reckoning, he enters the home stretch of the race with only about $30K in the bank.
One other note: Of all the candidates who’ve bought newspaper ads, I don’t recall anyone buying space in the Burlington Free Press. Seven Days yes, Times Argus and Rutland Herald yes, local weeklies yes, but not the Fallen Queen of Vermont Journalism.
Milne’s checkbook stays open. The Republican LG candidate, Scott Milne, donated another $49K to his own campaign, bringing his total to $147K. That’s roughly half his campaign total of $297K. Almost all of his $81K in 10/1 to 10/15 expenditures went to television advertising. Still following the Disembodied Head model.
Gray sails onward. Democrat Molly Gray had a solid two weeks, raising $43K to bring her campaign total to $388K, an impressive amount for an LG candidate. She has almost $80K in the bank, so she’s in good shape for the home stretch. Milne will have to keep writing himself checks if he’s going to keep pace. Gray has nearly three times as many donors as Milne, and has a better than three-to-one lead in small donations.
The national money believes the governor’s race is over. Our Vermont, the Republican Governors Association’s Vermont PAC, spent $58K in early October — but $53K of that was for polling. Presumably the results were favorable for Gov. Scott, since the RGA didn’t bother to spend anything on advertising.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Governors Association finally let go of a few bucks, spending $39K on polling. Presumably the results were favorable for Gov. Scott, since the DGA continued to abstain from any pro-Zuckerman commitment.
PACs in the LG race. The Republican State Leadership Committee continues to sit on its hands. Since spending $210K for pro-Milne ads on September 24, it hasn’t spent a dime in Vermont. Not good news for Milne. The obvious inference is that the RSLC took a flyer on Milne, and then tore up its ticket.
The pro-Gray Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund continued to invest on a relatively modest level, reporting $30K in TV ad buys (previously documented in mass media filings) and $5K for out-of-state consultancy services. For the first time, ABVAF reported individual donors: Renewable energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf kicked in $15K, Sharon sugarbush entrepreneur and environmental donor Arthur Berndt gave $10K, and so did Patricia Highberg, Democratic megadonor and owner of a noted garden in Woodstock. (Before October 1, ABVAF’s money had come in transfers from the Alliance for a Better Vermont, a 501c4 nonprofit that isn’t bound to disclose its donors.)
Arguably the most influential PAC of the cycle. That would be the Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund, thanks to a handful of large donations. VCVAF has spent $81K this cycle, the bulk of it going to postcards and digital campaigning on behalf of 19 Democratic/Progressive House candidates, a mix of incumbents and newcomers. As noted previously, this is an apparent effort to shore up the supermajority that overturned the governor’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act.
By the small-bore financial standards of House campaigns, it’s a sizeable investment. It sure won’t hurt the Dem/Prog fight to maintain or even increase its majority in the House.
Update 10/16: Today, VCVAF filed another 13 mass media spending reports. Its past filings have each listed anywhere from $1K to maybe $4K in spending. These filings almost certainly take VCVAF’s total investment in House races over the $100,000 mark.
So where did all this money come from? Well, $55K was from the Green Advocacy Project, a California-based nonprofit that, in these years of Trumpian climate denialism, has focused its attention on state and local politics. Kincaid Perot of Warren, president of the board of the Friends of the Mad River and a frequent Democratic donor, gave $20K, and the League of Conservation Voters gave $17K. Nice work if you can get it.
The next campaign finance deadline is November 1, two days before Election day. In the meantime, I’ll be obsessively refreshing the Mass Media Reports page of the Secretary of State’s website.
Thanks for doing this. With all this money sloshing through the pipelines of our political system, it’s no wonder why those not of the political donor class are all but forgotten at the statehouse door. It’s all about the money.