Margolis: The era of the super PAC arrives in Vermont

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

As all political insiders knew, this year’s election in Vermont wasn’t going to be a big deal. Nothing would alter the basic landscape of Vermont politics.

After all, everybody knew who would win: President Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch, Gov. Peter Shumlin. Democrats all, or in Sanders’ case, a de facto Democrat. Secretary of State Jim Condos – a Democrat – would not even be challenged. Attorney General Bill Sorrell would be, but mostly in the Democratic primary, and having survived that, his re-election is all but guaranteed.

Republicans would not be frozen out. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was going to win, and so perhaps was the GOP candidate for auditor, Sen. Vincent Illuzzi of Orleans and Essex counties, who is opposing Democrat Doug Hoffer. But that would hardly ruffle the dominance of the Democrats, who were also on their way to maintaining – perhaps even expanding – their ample majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

In Vermont, as in most of the rest of the country, the center-right has all but disappeared. That’s a big deal. So is the de facto replacement of a major party by one reclusive person.

No big deal, said the political insiders.

Who were wrong again.

This election is a very big deal indeed. Not because those predictions were wrong. They were right. What makes this Vermont election a very big deal is both what it has revealed and what it has initiated, or what has been inserted into it.

The two are related. The revelation is that the once-dominant Vermont Republican Party is … well, not quite dead, but much diminished and much altered. The institution which governed the state for much of its history now has barely enough power to govern itself. It has almost no money. It has no paid staff (a lone volunteer mans the party office, though the “manning” is being done by a woman). Whatever it may have to say does not seem to appeal to most Vermonters.

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. When a party abandons the space it once occupied, something will enter it. In this case, the new entrant is called Vermonters First.

That’s a super PAC, a relatively new species which evolved thanks to two 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decisions – Citizens United v. FEC and v. FEC – which allowed political action committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support candidates as long as the committees do not coordinate their activities with the candidates or political parties.

As of Oct. 15, Vermonters First had raised $700,000 and spent most of it on television and radio commercials and mailings to support Republican causes in general, Republican state treasurer candidate Wendy Wilton, and several Republicans running for the Legislature. Almost all that money came from one person, a wealthy and somewhat reclusive Burlington woman named Lenore Broughton, who in just a few months has made herself the most influential Republican in the state.

When Republicans dominated Vermont politics, they “owned the center.” Now the Democrats do.

If not quite unique, Broughton’s role is most unusual. According to Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, the only comparable donor in the country seems to be Shaw Chen, who has contributed the entire budget of a super PAC called America Shining, which is supporting the congressional candidacy of Jay Chen (presumably a relative), the Democrat opposing Republican Rep. Ed Royce.

Actually, Vermonters First did not occupy precisely the same space abandoned by Vermont’s Republican Party. Its space was the center-right. Vermonters First’s space is the far right.

Meaning that in Vermont, as in most of the rest of the country, the center-right has all but disappeared. That’s a big deal. So is the de facto replacement of a major party by one reclusive person.

As University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson noted, when the Republican Party dominated Vermont, it was “never a hard core right party.” Not only did a great many moderate Republicans live in the state, Nelson said, but back in the days when the real contest was in the GOP primary, many of the hopelessly outnumbered Democrats would “cross over” and “vote for the most acceptable Republican,” who would then easily win the general election.

That explains why Vermont elected centrist Republicans such as Sens. George Aiken, Robert Stafford, and Jim Jeffords, as well as Govs. Deane Davis and Richard Snelling.

In those days, Nelson said, it was the Republicans who “owned the center.” Now, he said, the Democrats do. The “urban expatriates” who started arriving in the 1960s and 1970s (and by now their children) may be less left-of-center than they were then. But they remain left of right.

“Ideologues do not thrive in cold weather,” Nelson said. “You need your neighbors.”

With Democrats controlling the center, Vermont’s moderate Republicans of yore have become independents or Democrats, leaving the Republican Party to the “movement conservatives,” who are too few to elect many candidates. That’s why the party’s organization is moribund. That’s why most of the ideological conservative candidates, Randy Brock for governor or Jack McMullen for attorney general, have little chance.

“I’m more worried about the long-term impact of these messages that they’re [Vermonters First and Broughton] pushing.” ~Nick Charyk

But because the party organization effectively does not exist, Broughton and Vermonters First filled the vacuum, and are using the most potent weapon in politics – money – to try to elect Wilton (and, at first, Illuzzi, who rejected the super PAC’s help).

The big question is: Will it work? Will the more than $192,000 Vermonters First has spent on television commercials and mailings elect Wilton, conservative Republican though she is?

To be sure, Wilton has other strengths. She’s a livelier campaigner than incumbent Democrat Beth Pearce, who was appointed to the job, and has never run for office. But as a candidate, Wilton has actually raised less money than Pearce. And as a conservative Republican, she’d be the longest of shots without the ads and mailings paid for by Vermonters First.

And that $192,000 understates the help she’s gotten from the super PAC, which has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Vermont Democrats and their policies, possibly plowing more fertile ground for all Republicans.

It has also targeted a few specific legislative races, but these would be seem not to be a clear indicator of its clout. Most of those races are competitive, anyway, so Republican victories could not be as plainly attributed to the efforts of Vermonters First.

In the Northeast Kingdom, for instance, the group has mailed brochures and bought newspaper advertising for Republican Senate candidate Bob Lewis. But Lewis is a popular member of the House and he is running to replace Illuzzi, also a Republican. Should he win, it would be hard for Vermonters First to claim credit, or for Democrats to blame it for their loss. Only a major Republican pick-up – something like four senators or eight to 10 House seats – might be attributable to Vermonters First.

Right now, the Democrats and their supporters (including a couple of Super PACs, but with far less to spend) can’t afford an effective response.

So the real test of Vermonters First’s clout will be the Wilton-Pearce battle. Democrats who say that have seen internal polls (no one is taking a public poll) say Pearce is ahead. They don’t say how far ahead.

Nick Charyk, who is coordinating the campaigns of Democratic House candidates, said he was “not horribly worried about” those candidates being beaten because of the efforts of Vermonters First.

“I’m more worried about the long-term impact of these messages that they’re pushing,” he said. Calling the super PAC’s ads “definitely false,” Charyk noted that if a campaign “says a lie enough times,” some people will believe it unless the other side can counter it. Right now, the Democrats and their supporters (including a couple of super PACs, but with far less to spend) can’t afford an effective response.

Whether the Vermonters first ads are dishonest is of course open to debate. But at least one – claiming Democrats plan to extend the sales tax to services such as haircuts and legal advice – seems at best to be a stretch. Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith did muse on the subject earlier this year. But it never got past the musing stage, and even the musing would have combined extending the tax with lowering the sales tax rate.

Besides, broadening a tax’s base while lowering its rates is standard Republican policy. Or, more accurately, standard centrist Republican policy.

Centrist Republicanism is not quite dead. Phil Scott qualifies. Illuzzi, the other Republican who might win statewide, is downright liberal on some issues. Political fortunes tend to be cyclical, and these Republicans could form the basis of a GOP revival one day, if Democrats make some mistakes.

No doubt they will. Vermont should open 2013 with a Democratic administration and another overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. This promises dominance, but perhaps also division. On many issues, the political center in the state is now dominated by one man – Gov. (and no doubt soon to be Gov.-elect) Peter Shumlin. The more potent opposition to many of his proposals is less likely to come from the frail GOP than from House and Senate Democrats to his left. An interesting prospect to contemplate.

Jon Margolis

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  • Mark Snelling

    Jon-I think you have missed the reality of the Brock/Shumlin race because of your early expectations and predictions. The race is closing fast, with a poll this week of 520 Vermonters showing it as a 5 point race and a steady decline in Shumlin popularity. VTDigger has this poll and has chosen not to publish or note it. Given the steady rise Brock has shown and the photo finish between Shumlin and Dubie(less than 4000 votes)in 2010, I think your view of the demise of the moderate Republicans is unfounded. Shumlin is in a battle for his political life and you appear to have missed it. Verrmonters have not.

    • I received the poll Saturday evening in the middle of a family birthday party. I will be publishing a story about it today.

    • Carl Werth

      Link to that article?

  • Robert Roper

    Mr. Margolis throws around the terms “conservative” and “center right” Republicans, but never defines either. I wish he would. What does Mr. Margolis think a conservative Republican is or does? Or, does he just get to define one as bad and that’s that. Wendy Wilton was the treasurer for the state’s second largest city, has a terrific fiscal turn around story to tell, and was just elected Vermont’s Treasurer of the Year by her peers. How is somebody with that background, going up against a political appointee with little charisma an no experience running for office, is immediately written of by the Vermont media? The answer is liberal bias. “Reporters” like Mr. Margolis define in their own minds Wendy Wilton, or Jack McMullen or Randy Brock as “conservative” (whatever that means), and write them off regardless of their merits. This is an injustice to the candidates, but, more importantly to the electorate.

    • Paula Schramm

      I think Wendy Wilton definitely has earned her “conservative” and ” far right” labels honestly by her votes during her 2005-06 term in the legislature and by her style of campaigning, first against single-payer health care earlier in the year,( which she inexplicably has denied ), and now against Beth Pearce. She has been aggressive, using accusations against Pearce’s character, transparency and honesty that come off as a real stretch, and has made errors with her information, implying things that are untrue. This is not the approach of a “centrist” or a “moderate”.

      I don’t think this article, or the Democrats are “writing her off”, quite the opposite .

  • Renée Carpenter

    And almost no one even mentions that 80 of Vermont’s largest towns use optical scanners that have proprietary software that can alter the vote unbeknownst to anyone. The only way to know whether or not this is the case is to count the original paper ballots.

    If there are electoral upsets in statewide, or other, candidacies, WHO will demand that the paper ballots be counted?

  • Virginia Burgess

    Surprising that Rob Roper can’t define “conservative” His program talks about “conservative issues”on a regular basis My own view is based on the Republican stonewalling in congress. Cut programs for the middle class and boost tax breaks for the wealthiest. Support the military, the oil companies and define the country only by who can make the most, get the most and give the least!

  • Virginia Burgess

    Surprising Rob Roper cannot define “conservative”, His own program discusses “conservative issues” on a regular basis. My own view is based on the stonewalling going on in Congress. Self described conservatives are dedicated to cutting programs for the needy and the middle class while protecting the interests by tax breaks and tax benefits for the wealthy, oil companies and big corporations. It is all about defining The United States as being dedicated to the proposition that what we are all about is getting and protecting our personal goals – get all you can and protecting your own – forget about our community at large

    • Robert Roper

      Thanks for your opinion on the matter, Virginia, but I was wondering how the reporter of this story defines what he thinks an ideological conservative is. My guess is that it is similar to, and just about as silly as, yours. Nobody on either side of the political aisle is “dedicated” to hurting the needy and the middle class. That, quite frankly, is a bigoted sentiment. Liberals believe that the best way to help people is through active government requiring high taxes and centralized power in the hands of a few elites. Conservatives believe that the best way to help people is through a free market in which people can make their own decisions, form their own associations to solve problems, and by owning the fruits of their labor. The question is, which works to actually better the lives of the middle class and the poor wishing to find a way out of poverty? Here in Vermont, if the liberal formula worked, given that we have a very liberal legislature, governor, laws and culture, poverty should be on the run and the middle class should be strong. Instead what we see is middle class flight, and the fastest growing gap between rich and poor out of any state in the country. How do you square that?

      • Neil Gerdes

        Rob, two things.

        1. people have been fleeing this state for a better economic life since the crash of the wool market in the mid 19th century. You can’t blame it on liberals, all rural states have had this problem for a long time.

        2. you state “Conservatives believe that the best way to help people … form their own associations to solve problems”. Associations like unions?

      • Paula Schramm

        “Nobody on either side of the political aisle is “dedicated” to hurting the needy and the middle class. That, quite frankly, is a bigoted sentiment.”

        Robert Roper : this is what you said in reply to Virginia Burgess’ comment. But that is not the statement that she made.
        Frankly, I’m getting sick of this tactic of putting words in people’s mouth, and then slamming them for the statement you have created. I’ve had quite enough of this already from SIX “Vermonters First” mailings, and numerous of their TV ads. I hope Lenore Broughton/Tayt Brooks’ tactics will fail in this election. And if they succeed, we are in trouble, (not only in the nation, as has been obvious with the vacuous, distortion-filled Romney/Ryan campaign ), in deep trouble in Vermont.

  • Walter Carpenter

    “Conservatives believe that the best way to help people is through a free market in which people can make their own decisions, form their own associations to solve problems, and by owning the fruits of their labor.”

    If conservatives really believed in that then the middle class would not be shrinking like it has been and the swelling ranks of so many low wage workers who need help because the fruits of their labor do not pay them enough to live.

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