The Money Race: Lieutenant Governor

If you want to encapsulate the Vermont Republican Party’s statewide ballot woes, the latest campaign finance reports spell it out right clear.

The four Democratic candidates took in a combined $110,000 in the period ending July 1.

The two Republicans? $8,000.

It’s even worse when you look at campaign-to-date totals. Democrats: $308,000.

Republicans: $16,000. (Sen. Joe Benning $14K, Grgory Thayer $2K.)

Now, the usual caveat applies: Money is only one way to measure the strength of a campaign. There are other factors — name recognition, a strong network of grassroots support, an ideology that appeals to a significant piece of the electorate. But c’mon. You’ve got to have some money to be competitive. The Republican hopefuls just don’t.

The VTGOP has a perfectly fine candidate in Benning. They have done next to nothing to support him. He’s a veteran state senator and former minority leader, and yet nobody from his Senate caucus appears on his donor list. Only one sitting lawmaker, House Minority Leader Patricia McCoy, is on the list, as is former lawmaker Peg Flory.

That’s it. And that’s a disgrace for the VTGOP. They go begging for candidates over and over and over again. Benning steps into the breach with a good record and reputation, and gets no help. Well, he got $1,500 from two-time candidate Scott Milne ($500 directly and $1,000 through a Milne-owned business), but otherwise nada.

Hey, Republicans: Do you want real candidates with experience and brains? Or do you simply not give a rat’s patoot?

Anyway. Let’s turn to the real race — the one for the Democratic nomination, a lively four-way contest between outgoing Rep. Kitty Toll, former LG David Zuckerman, Patricia Preston, president of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, and outgoing Rep. Charlie Kimbell.

That’s the order of their finish in the fundraising race to date: Toll $175K, Zuckerman $166K, Preston $105K, and Kimbell $62K.

And there’s worse news for Kimbell: His fundraising pace has slowed. He raised $19K since March 15, while Toll took in $80K, Zuckerman $73K, and Preston $39K. In terms of donor appeal, Toll and Zuckerman are separating from the pack.

Toll is spending at the fastest rate, a total of $114K so far. She’s the only candidate to buy TV advertising, and she’s spent $58K in all — more than half her total expenses. Seems like a good strategy for a well-funded candidate with a name recognition deficit: Put your mug on the teevee.

Let’s look at cash on hand. Zuckerman leads with $71K, Toll is second with $61K, Preston third with $58K, and Kimbell last with only $21K.

Are there non-financial reasons to think Kimbell may be stronger than his bank account? Not really. Toll is pipping him at the post in support from the House caucus and mainstream Dems. Preston is beating Kimbell out for the moderate wing of the donor base. He’s kinda got nowhere to go.

Toll’s donor list is heavy with current and former lawmakers: Jessica Brumsted, Joan Lenes, Kathleen James, Kari Dolan, Carol Ode, Hal Colston, Helen Head, John Killacky (from his campaign fund), Maxine Grad, Friends of Janet Ancel, Mary Hooper, Tim Briglin, and Maida Townsend.

Other notable names: outgoing Treasurer Beth Pearce ($1K directly and $4K from her campaign fund), garbageman John Casella ($4K), all-purpose centrist and pension scold David Coates ($2K), VSEA lobbyist and former lawmaker Steve Howard ($350), and three other lobbyists: Heidi Tringe ($250), Patti Komline ($200), and Justin Johnson ($500).

Some of those names — Tringe, Komline, Casella and arguably Coates — you might expect to see in Republican campaign finance reports. But they know where the bread is buttered, and the VTGOP is offering nothing but dry, burnt toast.

Even more Republican refugees can be found on Preston’s donor list. To begin with, Tom Torti, longtime head of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce, is treasurer of the Preston campaign. He also kicked in $850 out of his own pocket. Other names that might make you think Preston is the least Democratic of the Democrats: Ernie and Dee Pomerleau ($6K), Win Smith ($2K) former Burlington Airport head Gene Richards ($1,500). and centrist Dem donors Roland and Lisa Groeneveld ($4K).

Oh, and former senator and all-around pest Peter Galbraith (1K). Who is, if I recall correctly, the only current or former lawmaker on Team Preston.

In sum, Preston is doing surprisingly well for a first-time pol with little name recognition — but she’s doing so on the backs of centrist-to-conservative donors. It remains to be seen if she can attract a significant portion of the primary vote with no party or political history. Molly Gray did it in 2020, so it can happen, but this is a stronger field than the one Gray faced two years ago.

Zuckerman’s disastrous 2020 bid for governor hasn’t diminished the enthusiasm he generates in left-wing circles. He’s doing quite well financially, and he began the race with a huge edge in name recognition. And he’s the only candidate on the progressive side of the ledger; Toll, Preston and Kimbell may well split the Democratic center and right. Zuckerman would seem well-positioned to retake the office.

As to big names in his list, he got maximum $4,210 gifts from Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s, renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf and anti-Burlington airport activist Rosanne Greco, $3,500 from frequent Bernie Sanders donor Alicia Merinoff, $3,050 from Constance Krosney, who backed Elizabeth Warren in 2020, and $1,000 from liberal megadonor Crea Lintilhac. Also on his list: $500 from progressive lobbyist Peter Sterling, $150 from outgoing Senator Chris Pearson, and $200 from cartoonist and queer icon Alison Bechdel.

One has to think that Zuckerman and Toll have the fundraising edge going forward. Zuckerman has a long list of people who give regularly to progressive causes and aren’t anywhere near maxed out, and Toll has a long list of politically-engaged Dems who can give more if the need arises.

When the race was getting started, Zuckerman and Toll seemed to be the favorites. The money race doesn’t give either a decisive edge, but it hasn’t detracted from their front-runner status either.

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