One thing stands out when you look over the campaign finance filings for the three state Senate districts in Chittenden County: There are lots of candidates, and most of ’em aren’t raising much money anywhere outside of their own pockets. Seems like a potential equity issue; if you can afford a couple thousand bucks or more, or a LOT more, you don’t have to worry so much about fundraising from other people.
Maybe this is a byproduct of splitting up the formerly unified Chittenden district: No longer can candidates raise money from anywhere in the county. Now they have smaller fields to harvest. Likely a bigger factor: There are a lot of contested statewide races consuming a lot of Democratic money, perhaps away from legislative races.)
The king of the self-funders is Erhard Mahnke, affordable housing advocate and longtime Bernie Sanders associate. He dumped a cool $10,000 into his own campaign, and has only raised $666 from anyone else. That gives him a financial lead in the Chittenden Central district, because he hasn’t spent much so far.
Other notable self-funders include Brian Shelden and Irene Wrenner, Democratic candidates in Chittenden North. They’ve given nearly $7,500 to their own campaigns and raised less than that from other people. Meanwhile, the sole Republican, state Rep. Leland Morgan, has barely tried. He’s raised less than $700. Perhaps he’s looked at district demographics and decided he doesn’t really need to try. Or he’s waiting until after the primary.
Back in Chittenden Central, the top three fundraisers have done well from their own pockets and from others, too.
There’s Mahnke, already discussed, plus state Rep. Tanya Vynovsky and Burlington school board member Martine Larocque Gulick. Vyhovsky has raised $7,961, including $1,535 from herself*. Gulick has raised $9,323, including $2,455 from people named Gulick. But she has the broadest donor poll, with 58 unique donors.
*Update! According to Vyhovsky, this wasn’t a donation but a surplus from previous campaigns carried forward. It was listed as a donation on her filing, so I reported as such. She and her treasurer are checking to see if a mistake was made.
One candidate in Chittenden Central, Andrew Brown, withdrew from the race after having raised about $1,700. Another hopeful, Dawn Ellis, is doing I’m not sure what. She’s run for Senate before, unsuccessfully. She carried forward $430 from previous campaigns and has only raised $73 in fresh donations. She has two donors: Dawn Ellis, and Dawn M. Ellis and Associates. And there’s a curious entry on the expense side: The Ellis campaign paid Dawn M. Ellis and Associates $400 for “computer rental.” How she expects to compete, I don’t know. Maybe she doesn’t.
Baruth, the sole incumbent, suspended all campaigning and fundraising In the Covid campaign of 2020 and waltzed to re-election anyway. This time, he’s trying a little bit; he’s raised $2,865 and already spent $1,923, mostly for ads in Seven Days. Not much cash on hand, but does he need it? Probably not.
In the Chittenden Southeast district, it’s a story of sharks and minnows. The three incumbents running for three seats, Ginny Lyons, Thomas Chittenden and Kesha Ram Hinsdale, are doing just fine and apparently running as a ticket, since they’ve reported some coordinated expenses for advertising. The other three candidates, Steve May, Lewis Mudge, and Ken Scott didn’t even file disclosures, which appears to mean that they’ve raised and spent less than $500.
The legally mandated splitting of the Chittenden district, which used to include six seats, was partly designed to encourage competition. It was extremely tough for a non-incumbent to compete in such a large district. Now, two districts have three seats apiece and Chittenden North has but one.
But incumbency is still a huge advantage. Non-incumbents have to raise a good bit of money to compete — and it helps if you can chip in a couple thousand, or ten thousand, to your own kitty. That’s an equity issue of a different, but still troubling, sort. Money doesn’t necessarily buy elections, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Has Mahnke bought himself a seat in the Senate? I’d like to think not, but we shall see.
About the ability to do face to face fundraising: Some people are comfortable with that and do it well. Others are very much the opposite. In other words, for some of these (primarily) self-funders, it may be the only real path forward … unless one wants to spend money on professional campaign people.
I hope those looking for votes spend some time explaining their fund raising process(es) with prospective voters.