Category Archives: Campaign finance

When is $2,900 Not Really $2,900?

The answer, in this case, is “when you can’t spend it.”

I’m referring to the maximum allowable individual contribution to a Congressional candidate, which is $2,900 for a primary campaign and another $2,900 for the general election. Candidates can collect both amounts before the primary, but they aren’t allowed to spend the second $2,900 until after the primary.

Well, in most cases it’s $2,900 twice. Some give the full $2,900 for the primary and some lesser amount for the general. All gifts are notated “Primary” or “General” in Federal Election Commission filings. But the gifts earmarked “General” still count towards a candidate’s total haul and cash on hand.

Should it? It’s arguable, but it’s the rules. Let’s set up a second category for primary dollars only and call it “effective cash on hand.”

This is kind of splitting hairs in the case of Republican Senate candidate Christina Nolan, who is the overwhelming favorite to win her primary. As reported previously, $37,700 of her cash on hand cannot be spent until the general election because nine of her donors gave more than $2,900 apiece. But at least she will get to spend that money… eventually.

That is decidedly not the case in the Democratic primary for U.S. House. It appears to be a close and lively contest among three leading candidates: Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, and state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale. One of them will get to spend those general election dollars; the other two will not.

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Brock Pierce’s Campaign Finance Report is Freaking Hilarious and Very Sketchy

Brock Pierce, who forever will be known in these quarters as Richie Rich, is still kinda-sorta running as an independent for Pat Leahy’s U.S. Senate Seat. That is, if he can even qualify for the ballot. But running or no, Pierce did file a campaign finance report for the first quarter of 2022. And, having given it a once-over, all I can say is the Pierce proto-campaign is either a piece of performance art or some kind of scam, possibly both.

There’s one big thing that points to “scam”: Pierce claims total expenditures of nearly $600,000, but his itemized expenses add up to less than $200,000. The difference is unexplained. More on that later, but let’s start with his fundraising. Pierce’s campaign fund has netted more than $700,000, which seems eminently respectable; but $589,000 of that consists of loans to his own campaign.

“Loans,” right.

Reminder for those just tuning in: Pierce is a former child actor turned failed entrepreneur turned cryptocurrency billionaire with a history of associating with pedophiles. There is no tangible evidence that he lives in Vermont.

Pierce’s donor base can be counted on the fingers of two hands. He’s got a total of 10 unique donors, none of whom live in Vermont and most of whom forked over the $2,900 maximum. They’re exactly the kind of folks you’d expect: crypto investors, venture capitalists, and stock traders. One of them, George Sellars, was Pierce’s partner in Tether, a sketchy firm that supposedly provides a stable platform for crypto trading. Another, Jason Dorsett, is a crypto investor and maybe also a pet psychic.

Okay, now let’s turn to Pierce’s truly profligate expenditures.

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Ram Hinsdale Got the Headline, But Not So Fast

The latest federal campaign finance reports are in, and State Sen Kesha Ram Hinsdale took the headline by winning the first-quarter fundraising race among the Democratic candidates for Congress with $444,213. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint was next with $368,382. Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, rather surprisingly, was third with $292,208 in first-quarter takings. (Sianay Chase Clifford isn’t competitive in the money race with a little more than $7,000 in donations. She’ll have to hope for a people-powered David v. Goliath effort.)

But those topline numbers don’t tell the whole story. In fact, they’re downright misleading for a number of reasons. Ram Hinsdale took in the most during the first quarter — but if you look at fundraising for the entire campaign, Gray is first. If you look at cash on hand, Balint is first and Ram Hinsdale is a distant third. And that’s really the most important metric, isn’t it?

(Standard disclaimer: Fundraising is only one measure of a campaign’s strength. As long as you’re competitive, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve got. It’s how well you spend it and how strong your grassroots game is. But money is the only campaign metric that’s easily measurable, so we dutifully measure it.)

Another thing. Ram Hinsdale has 56 individual donors who’ve given the maximum $2,900 for the primary campaign. That’s $162,500 of her total, and none of those people can give to Ram Hinsdale again until the general election campaign. Balint, by comparison, has only 23 max donors, worth $66,700 of her total. She has a lot more room to go back to donors and ask for more money. (Gray has 27.)

On the other side of the ledger, Ram Hinsdale has been spending money at a brisk pace, including a boatload on out-of-state consultancies, strategists, and media production outfits. In fact, if you look at her fundraising and spending without knowing whose it is, you’d think you were looking at a big-money corporate Democrat’s campaign, not a self-described champion of working folk.

So let’s look at cash on hand which, to me, is the most important metric going forward. Balint has $432,597. Gray has $404,369. Ram Hinsdale? $218,691. She’s got much less room to fundraise, and she’s got half as much money in the bank. Does that sound like the “winner”?

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Not Quite So Many Scofflaws in High Places As It Seemed

As expected, I’ve gotten some blowback from my post naming all the state lawmakers who didn’t file campaign finance reports by the March 15 deadline, and still hadn’t as of a couple weeks later.

I’ve heard from five lawmakers in all. One, Sen. Brian Campion, said I’d mistakenly put him on the list, and he was right. Four others (Sen. Phil Baruth, Reps. Seth Chase, Martin LaLonde and Emily Long) said they’d been advised by the Secretary of State’s office that they didn’t need to file.

And yes, they were right.

Here’s the deal. If you ended the 2020 campaign cycle with nothing in the bank and reported that fact at the time, and you have yet to raise or spend $500 or more in this cycle, you don’t have to report until you reach that threshold.

That was, indeed, the case for the four lawmakers named above. It may be true for others as well (and I’ll add their names to the list if they let me know). But I believe their number is fairly small.

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A Whole Lotta Scofflaws in High Places

Running update: Sen. Brian Campion, named below as having failed to file, did actually file. Four other lawmakers — Sen. Phil Baruth and Reps. Martin Lalonde, Emily Long and Seth Chase — say they zeroed out their accounts after the 2020 election and have neither raised nor spent more than $500 since, so they don’t have to file.

Updated update. I haven’t heard from any more lawmakers (so far), but I’ve written a second post explaining this exemption in more detail.

Well, if Jim Condos won’t do it, and Sarah Mearhoff won’t do it, I guess I have to.

Allow me to explain.

Last Friday, VTDigger’s always informative Final Reading kicked off with an item about lawmakers failing to abide by the law. Specifically, dozens of them have yet to file campaign finance reports that were due on March 15. Secretary of State Condos sent an email to lawmakers asking that they comply but refused to identify the scofflaws, saying “I can’t be their babysitter,” which kind of implies that they need one. Reporter Mearhoff also demurred from naming names, but teasingly said “I know who you are.”

Gee, and here I thought it was a reporter’s job to tell us what they know. Maybe space reasons? After all, the list of noncompliers is 69 names long. That’s almost 40% of the 180 “public servants” in the Legislature. Forty percent.

Mearhoff also reminded us that when the Legislature wrote the law, it refused to include any penalties for failing to file. That’s pretty standard fare for laws touching on their own interests; lawmakers jealously guard their privileges when it comes to campaign finance and ethics and reapportionment and such. Which leaves us with the plastic épée of public shaming, which rarely manages to penetrate a lawmaker’s skin.

Before I get to naming names, I should say that any mistakes are my responsibility and I will gladly make corrections if any of those listed below can show that they did, in fact, file as required by law. Also, this list was made on the morning of April 5; any reports filed after that are not reflected below.

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Big Money in the Democratic LG Race (And Other Campaign Finance Notes)

The big takeaway from the first campaign finance deadline of 2022 (for state candidates only, not federal) is that the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor is going to be a heated affair. All four candidates raised respectable amounts of money, with a couple of them clearly rising to the top.

Disclaimer: Fundraising is not the only measure of a campaign’s health. Organization and grassroots appeal are also key, but it’s very hard to measure those and very simple to read financial filings, So we look for the missing keys under the streetlight where we can see.

Leading the pack is former state Rep. Kitty Toll, widely believed to be the choice of most party regulars. She raised $118,000, which is quite a lot for this early in an LG race. She had 323 separate donors, 227 of them giving less than $100 apiece.

Coming in a sollid second is former LG David Zuckerman, with $92,000. Patricia Preston, head of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, raised $89,000 with a big fat asterisk: $23,000 of her total came from in-kind donations. That’s a very high total, and it means she has far less cash on hand than it appears at first glance. Rep. Charlie Kimbell is a distant fourth with $44,000 raised.

You want deets? We got deets.

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Something Stupid This Way Comes

Yep, it’s time again for another round of The Veepies, our awards for stupidity and/or obtuseness in the public sphere. Got a lovely crop of stupid on offer.

First, we have the It Worked So Splendidly Last Time, Let’s Run It Back Again Award, which goes to the folks responsible for exhuming the cold, rotting carcass of the Sanders Institute. Yep, the Sanders clan’s vanity project think tank is once again open for business, thanks to a big fat chunk o’change from… wait for it… the Bernie Sanders campaign! Gotta do something with all those $27 gifts they couldn’t manage to spend during the actual election season.

For those just joining us, the Sanders Institute was founded in 2016 by Jane Sanders and her son David Driscoll, who — mirabile dictu — emerged from what I’m sure was an exhaustive nationwide search to become SI’s executive director. Well, the Institute posted a bunch of essays (mostly recycled from other media) on its website and had one big conference in 2018, but was shut down in May 2019, sez the AP, “amid criticism that the nonprofit has blurred the lines between family, fundraising and campaigning.” Ya think?

There are a few differences between the original and SI 2.0. Sanders comms guy Mike Cesca told VPR that none of the campaign’s money would go toward pay or bennies for Sanders family members. Which is kind of an admission that they screwed up the first time.

Also, two different spokespeople made reference to “the transition” from winning votes to educating people, which makes you think he’s not running for president again, and makes you wonder whether he’ll run for another Senate term in 2024. The new Institute will also include an archive of Sanders and his family… hmm, sounds like a think tank vanity project.

After the jump: A daycare misfire, a self-inflicted social media disappearance, and incompetent fiber installers.

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A Republican Lawmaker Hops On Board the Klar Klan Kruiser

The wonderful folks who brought you the CovidCruiser bus to the January 6 insurrection are back in business, baby! Now it’s the KKK Traveling Road Show, featuring a select group of speakers who are convinced that Critical Race Theory is the worst thing since, I dunno, Sputnik?

No, Burisma. Let’s go with Burisma.

The Klar Klan Kruiser is the brainchild of Gregory Thayer, a Rutland accountant and QAnon-adjacent conspiratorialist. It’s making stops tonight (Wednesday 7/14) in Barre and Friday in St. Albans. In each venue, a series of speakers will rant and rave about CRT for what’s likely to be a small audience of like-minded folks.

So who’s on the guest list for tonight? Well, Thayer himself, former gubernatorial candidate John Klar, Our Lady of the CovidCruiser Ellie Martin, “Former Educators” Martha Hafner and Alice Flanders, and first-term Rep. Samantha Lefebvre (R-Orange).

The latter is the subject of this post.

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10/15 Campaign Finance Filings: Same Old Song (UPDATED)

Nothing in this column bears illustration, so let’s go with some clickbait.

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.

Yippee!

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.

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Why Are Liberal PACs Giving Thousands to Beth Pearce?

Nothing against our incumbent state treasurer, but she’s sailing to re-election and a bunch of liberal PACs have just made big donations to her campaign. Sure, reward a faithful officeholder and all that, but she doesn’t need the money and she’s not spending the money.

Look: Her Republican opponent, Carolyn Branagan, has filed her October 15 campaign finance report — and it shows no activity whatsoever since the previous reporting deadline of October 1. No fundraising, no spending, nothing. Before that, Branagan’s campaign had been a low-budget affair largely funded by herself. She’d raised $26,000 including $20,000 from herself, and spent $18,000. Total. On a statewide campaign.

Pearce, meanwhile, had raised $25,000 and spent a little less than 10 grand as of October 1. Her opponent has essentially given up, she drew 68% of the vote in 2018 and hasn’t been seriously challenged since her first run for the office in 2012. If she has a pulse on November 3, she’s gonna win.

During this 15-day reporting period, the VT-NEA Fund for Children and Public Education gave Pearce the maximum $4,160. The VSEA PAC has donated $1,500. VPIRG Votes chipped in $400. And she got $250 apiece from the Professional Firefighters of Vermont and the Vermont Building Trades PAC.

(She’s also received $2,000 from Emily’s List, but those are pass-through contributions from individuals giving to Pearce through the List. No conscious effort on Emily’s part.)

This shouldn’t really bother me, but it does. I mean, why?

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