Nothing Definitive in First Congressional Campaign Finance Reports

This week brought the first glimpse of the money race for the Congressional seat being vacated by Senator-in-Waiting Peter Welch, as candidates were required to report fundraising and spending for the fourth quarter of 2021. The headlines predictably focused on the bottom line: “Gray Outpaces Balint in Early Fundraising,” said Seven Days. VTDigger, which threw in Welch’s total for good measure, topped its story with “Welch led 2021 fundraising in Senate race, Gray in House campaign.”

The accompanying reports were the usual surface-scratch that follows filing deadlines. Lead with the totals, list corporate contributions if any, tick off a few notable donors, and call it a day. Not blaming any reporters for this; it’s part of the job, and nobody in the political press has enough knowledge (or time) to dig deep into the numbers.

Including myself, I hasten to add. I’ve been following this game for more than a decade, and I’m still largely ignorant about the backstage world of state politics. But I can tell you what I think I think.

First, while Gray did raise substantially more than Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, the latter raised more than enough to be competitive. Plus, we won’t have a marker for Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale’s campaign until April because she didn’t launch her campaign until after the close of the fourth quarter. So the real headline, the politically meaningful headline, is that it’s too soon to tell much of anything. But that doesn’t exactly drive the ol’ SEO, does it?

Bear in mind also that fundraising is only one indicator of a healthy campaign. If Balint’s got more volunteers or a stronger staff or a deeper statewide network, then she’s the true early leader. But campaign finance is the factor that’s visible from the outside, so it becomes the standard measure of a campaign’s success.

And there’s reason to think that Balint has a deeper network than Gray. On January 18, she put out a truly impressive tally of more than 400 endorsers, including a whole lot of lawmakers and community leaders from every part of the state and all walks of life. It’s an impressive list that demonstrates Balint’s broad appeal in party circles. It’s telling that Gray hasn’t put out such a list of her own. (Looks like Ben & Jerry haven’t been claimed; are they on Team Kesha?)

But the campaign finance filings are what we’ve got, and I have few notes about their significance. First, Gray had an extra week as an active candidate. Second, she spent considerably more than Balint. The fundraising gap was $118,000, but the 12/31 cash-on-hand gap is a less impressive $58,000.

On the first day of her campaign, Balint boasted of raising $125,000. The fact that she could “only” raise another 75K in the rest of December may indicate that she’s having a bit of difficulty keeping up a solid pace.

When you do the tedious job of skimming donor lists, you see that Gray received a lot more maximum gifts. Individual donors can give no more than $2,900 per election to a single candidate. In this case, the Democratic primary. Donors can give another $2,900 apiece for the general election.

Max gifts for Gray, 48. Max gifts for Balint, 11. Each has a handful of donors who are close to the max, having already given $2,500 or more.

There are two ways of looking at that. You could say that Gray did a better job of reaching max donors, or you could say that Gray’s core funders are tapped out and Balint has more room to grow. Both are true, but it’s a small red flag for Gray that she’s got two dozen top donors she can’t go back to.

From my admittedly spotty knowledge of the key players (in terms of party influence as well as money), I see some notable names. Jane Stetson, for instance. She’s a generous and influential Democratic donor who tends toward the center. She gave a max gift to Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, as did her husband. Having Stetson on her side is more important to Gray than the dollars she gets from a couple of max donations.

Gray also drew some big-dollar gifts from top business figures: $2,900 apiece from developer Ernie Pomerleau, auto dealership mogul William Wheeler, and Developer Dude Russ Scully. Also maxed out for Gray are Donna Carpenter of Burton Snowboards and renewable-energy developer David Blittersdorf.

Balint, for her part, has progressive megadonor Crea Lintilhac and centrist David Coates in her corner. Senate colleagues/supporters range from Dem/Prog Phil Baruth to Republican In Everything But Name Dick Mazza.

The most useful thing a political reporter could do, and something I should have done by now, is to reach out to party insiders and ask them which names catch their eyes. If you’ve got a list like that ready to go, you can see how each candidate fared among their party’s top moneybags and influencers. Which would be far more telling than the raw numbers.

And now we await the first-quarter campaign finance reports, due on April 15. Those will give us a good sense of the financial staying power of all three candidates.


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