Upstairs, Downstairs in State Senate Campaigns

This, ladies and germs, is Jared Duval, the undisputed king of fundraising among candidates for the Vermont Senate. Best known as executive director of the Energy Action Network, a nonprofit that encompasses business, nonprofits and government to address energy issues and climate change, Duval is now running for Senate in the Washington County district. And as of the July 1 reporting deadline, he had raised $23,629.

He outraised the number-two finisher in the entire state by nearly $10,000.

In fact, only six Senate candidates have managed to tally five figures. And one of those, Erhard Mahnke of the Chittenden Central district, donated $10,000 to his own campaign, so he barely counts.

None of the other five-figure fundraisers are from Chittenden, Vermont’s most populous and most prosperous county. Two are from Washington County: Duval and Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson, who raised $10,815. (Bit of an asterisk there; Watson transferred $1,735 from her mayoral campaign fund and her husband Zach Watson, fka one-term state Rep. Zach Ralph, donated $1,580. Even so, she has substantial support.)

Two more are from Windham: Wichie Artu with $14,027 and Nader Hashim with $12,213. The other Parent Warbucks is a real surprise: Self-styled “Agripublican” and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate John Klar has raised $12,019 in his bid to unseat perpetual incumbent Democrat Mark MacDonald in the Orange district. While Klar topped five figures, MacDonald didn’t even file a report. I doubt that he will be much troubled by Klar’s surprising bankroll. Still, it’s a considerable feat for a marginal political figure to raise more than $12,000 for a Senate race. It’s a hell of a lot better than any other Republican Senate candidate has done.

These few success stories aside, the narrative in most Senate campaigns is “How can we do more with less?” The money is, indeed, thin on the ground.

Take Washington County, where the retirement of Anthony Pollina has attracted three non-incumbent Dems into the race. Duval and Watson have raised the big bucks; Jeremy Hansen has raised $4,106. And the two incumbents, Ann Cummings and Andrew Perchlik, have placed their trust in the county’s appetite for incumbent protection. Perchlik has raised $1,507 (including $251, interestingly, from Duval), plus he carried over a $1,207 surplus from 2020. Cummings, who barely raises a finger in re-election campaigns, carried a hefty $5,459 in unspent cash from 2020 and has added only $745 this year. In terms of available cash for the three challengers, Duval has more than $17,000, Watson has about $5,000, and Hansen has less than $2,000.

The donor count, a rough measure of a candidate’s depth of appeal, is eas stark as the dollar amounts. Duval has 167 donors, Watson 67, Hansen 14. Perchlik has 15 and Cummings 13, but again, they’re not trying very hard.

Two counties that are the most likely pickup opportunities for Democrats or Republicans, Franklin and Rutland, are attracting surprisingly little money. In Franklin, where incumbent Republican Corey Parent is stepping away, the other incumbent, Republican Randy Brock, is approaching this “running for office” thing with a big fat yawn. He carried a whopping $9,235 surplus into this year and has raised only $750 since. The other Republican on the ballot, Robert Norris, hasn’t even filed a finance report.

Same song, different verse for Franklin County Dems. Pam McCarthy has raised $7,077, while Jesse Nakuma Palczewski began with a $1,848 surplus and has done no fundraising or spending this year. Given Norris’ lack of activity, McCarthy may be poised to deliver a Franklin Senate seat to the VDP for the first time in ten years. Of course, money is never ever the whole story.

Down Rutland way, only one incumbent, Republican Brian Collamore, is seeking re-election. Dem/Prog Cheryl Hooker and Repub Joshua Terenzini are stepping aside. In this race, none of the candidates are doing that well with money. Collamore didn’t file a report this month, and hasn’t raised a dime in 2022. The other two Republicans, Dave Weeks and Terry Williams, have raised a combined total of $421. Williams did enter 2022 with a $1,167 surplus, but still.

The two Dems aren’t doing much better. Anna Tadio has raised $2,555 from a mere eight donors including $200 from Hooker, while Bridgette Remington reports no financial activity. It must be said that Rutland County Dems aren’t doing much to preserve Hooker’s seat, and every seat is crucial for the Dems’ hopes of retaining a Senate supermajority.

The lack of money in Democratic Senate races must be attributed to the large number of competitive statewide primaries. Not only are donors more likely to give to a candidate higher on the ballot, there’s also a serious shortage of campaign management talent among legislative campaigns. The best people have been hoovered up by the high-profile candidates.

In closing, Windham is worth a bit of attention. The two incumbents, Becca Balint and Jeanette White, aren’t seeking re-election. Three considerable Democrats are duking it out for two available nominations.

There’s something unusual, perhaps unprecedented, in Artu’s campaign. He has attracted 103 donors, and all but 10 of them gave $100 or less. His campaign website lists 10 “team members,” some of whom are paid and some may not be. I’ve heard that his public appearances feature a cadre of supporters in identical Artu t-shirts*. It’s a level of professionalism that’s rare in Vermont legislative contests. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, you can decide.

*Not quite. Artu reached out to tell me that it’s actually the Nader Hashim campaign with the marching T-shirts. Lot of outside-the-box thinking down there. Bodes well for the future Windham Senate delegation.

Former Rep. Nader Hashim raised $1,926 in the March-July period and $12,213 for the campaign cycle. Both Hashim and Artu have spent heavily; Artu appears to be $3,000 underwater, while Hashim has about $2,600 in the bank.

The third Democrat, Wendy Harrison, has raised $6,191 and spent $2,836. Independent hopeful Timothy Wessel has raised a total of $7,513 and spent $4,207; that level of spending is a little worrying for a candidate who isn’t even on the August ballot. He should be playing the long game.

Oh, and the two Windham Republicans, Ricks Kenyon and Morton, haven’t reported any activity.

Which is the case for the vast majority of Republican challengers. They’re from the far right wing of the party and, Klar aside, they seem to have little appeal in the donor class.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are blessed with a surfeit of good Senate candidates. Well, they’re a bit short in Franklin and Rutland, and that might lose them the supermajority. The party’s prospects on the House seem sunnier. Wouldn’t it be funny if they finally nailed down a House supermajority only to lose the Senate? Yeah, that’d be hilarious.

The usual caveat in closing: Money isn’t the only thing. It’s just the only thing we can easily measure. It seems likely that money is less important in legislative races than on the statewide level; it’s rare for any legislative candidate to spend big on media, and it doesn’t take that much money to print some yard signs and palm cards. Hard work can be a perfectly adequate substitute for a big bankroll.

Still, the numbers are what we’ve got, and they do tell some stories.

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