Super PACs will be back

Editor’s note: Anne Galloway contributed to this report.

Though the debut of super PACs has had mixed results, stirring more ire than votes, politicos say there’s no doubt that big money will be back.

The only question is how the next set of super PACS will use limitless funding to affect Vermont’s 2014 election.

This time around Burlington millionaire backer Lenore Broughton and Vermonters First threw a big wad of cash at conservative candidates (nearly $1 million), and the super PAC the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for Fairness and Justice likely won the primary election for Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell with $185,000 worth of advertising.

Politicos say Vermonters can expect to see more groups with more money jump into the fray sooner rather than later.

Darcie Johnston, who lately ran GOP gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock’s campaign, says Broughton will be back in the next election cycle. And Johnston herself is thinking about starting a super PAC for Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, an anti-single-payer 501(c)(4), as soon as possible.

Though prominent Democrats asked Vermonters to vote against the super PACs in a series of radio ads, the Vermont Democratic Party didn’t go so far as to chastise its own when it came to former Gov. Howard Dean’s intimate involvement in the Vermont attorney general’s Democratic primary. (He campaigned with Sorrell and appeared in CFJ ads.) Dean, after all, is the grand old man of the party and recently gave $30,000 to the VDP through his political action committee, Democracy for America.

Kevin Ellis, a principle with the lobbying and communications firm KSE Partners, says Democrats in Vermont, however, in the next election cycle likely won’t give to super PACs because they think they are too dirty.

“The future is very much the same as this past election cycle. It isn’t going to scare Lenore Broughton away.” ~ Todd Bailey

That may change, though, as the money war accelerates, and outside groups, such as Vermonters First and Vermont Leads, a pro-single payer health care 501(c)(4) funded by the Service Employees International Union, reappear on the scene.

Todd Bailey, who works for Ellis and founded Priorities PAC, which raised $25,000 for Democrats this election cycle, says he expects super PACs to continue to dominate Vermont campaigns.

“The future is very much the same as this past election cycle,” Bailey said. “It isn’t going to scare Lenore Broughton away. In part that will be the case because it was a learning experience for everyone involved.”

Bailey says this election cycle was a “test case,” in which Democrats were in wait-and-see mode. “Their preference is is not to rely on them,” he said. “If they can get through an election cycle without them, they will.”

Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, says the impact of super PACs on the 2012 elections may prod the Legislature to pass stricter disclosure requirements.

Though super PACs made the biggest splash in the statewide races for treasurer and attorney general, they were also involved in local races and that may scare some lawmakers, Condos said.

“Now that super PACS went after the Legislature, they are going to be more in tune with what needs to be done,” the secretary said.

Super PAC backfire?

Vermonters First was dealt resounding defeats in just about every race it had a hand in.  It spent nearly $200,000 on Wendy Wilton, the Republican candidate for state treasurer — she lost to Democrat Beth Pearce by 10 percentage points — and it spent almost another $200,000 to elected Republicans to state House and Senate seats but didn’t manage to dent Democratic control of the Legislature.

Eric Davis, pundit and professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, says Vermonters First misread the zeitgeist of the electorate. The super PAC didn’t target its efforts, Davis said. Instead Vermonters First sent indiscriminate mailings and hit potential voters with robo-calls instead of calls from real people.

“It could have been that spending even backfired and helped Beth Pearce.” ~Eric Davis

Davis said it’s possible that Vermonters First’s broadcast ads, calls and mailings actually had a counterproductive effect on the state treasurer’s race.

“It could have been that spending even backfired and helped Beth Pearce,” Davis said.

Some high profile Democrats cast the election as a referendum on super PACS. In his endorsement of Beth Pearce, Dean, who played a starring role in a super PAC ad for Sorrell, said, “This race wouldn’t be a race, without the hundreds of thousands of dollars that a right-wing activist is pouring into the race. This is really a referendum on whether you want big money, in terms of these super PACS, to play a role in Vermont politics.”

Davis said the ad run by the Committee for Justice and Fairness, the D.C.-based super PAC affiliated with the Democratic Attorneys General Association, that featured Dean and promoted Sorrell was the most telling display of super PAC clout. Super PACS, Davis said, may prove to be more effective in primary races where voter turnout tends to be lower.

PACS and parties

Some Democrats are chalking up their near-ubiquitous victory as a tribute to their “grassroots” approach. In a statement released after the election, Shap Smith said, “Vermonters came out and proved that super PACs cannot buy elections in our state.”

Jake Perkinson, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, is more cautious about the specter of super PACS.

“I would be very hesitant to say we defeated the super PACS,” Perkinson said. “We did defeat them, but we didn’t defeat the danger of the super PACS.”

Though Pearce triumphed over Wilton in the treasurer’s race, Perkinson said: “They [Vermonters First] nevertheless had an impact in skewing the public discourse by putting so much information out there on her [Wilton’s] side.”

Perkinson said he is concerned that in future the Vermont Democratic Party will have to siphon more resources toward neutralizing the influence of super PACs. “We don’t have the money to spend … hopefully the law will change sooner rather than later,” he said.

Jack Lindley, chair of the Vermont Republican Party, had mixed feelings about the role of super PACS in Vermont and the particular impact that Vermonters First may have had on this election.

“Did it help the Republican Party?” Lindley asked. “I think on the margins, it probably helped get a good strong vote out and so that’s good. When we have heavy voting that’s good for any party … Is it good Vermont? I would have grave questions about whether it’s good for Vermont.”

A proposal for more disclosure

Secretary of State Jim Condos says Vermonters First’s involvement in Vermont’s House and Senate races may galvanize the Legislature to implement stricture disclosure requirements for super PACS.

Condos said he spoke with several lawmakers after the election who “seem very receptive,” but he declined to provide names.

Under the current system, campaign finance reports are filed on a monthly basis beginning in July during an election year. During the off year, a single report is due in July.

Secretary of State Jim Condos. VTD/Josh Larkin

Secretary of State Jim Condos. VTD/Josh Larkin

Expenditures and contributions made between Oct. 15 and Election Day aren’t disclosed until after the election.

Campaign finance reports must be hand-delivered and then scanned before they are uploaded to the Secretary of State’s website.

Super PACS are subject to the same reporting requirements as candidates, parties and PACs, but they do not have campaign contribution limits. Super PACS are also able to sidestep disclosure requirements by receiving donations through 501(c)(4) nonprofit entities, which aren’t required to identify their contributors, or through shell corporations that are also set up to obscure donors.

Condos outlined several “concepts” he plans to propose to the Legislature. He wants to replace the current system with an electronic campaign finance and lobbying disclosure database in which candidates, parties, and PACS can file online through password-protected accounts.

He also proposes to increase the frequency of the filing schedule to require quarterly reports during off years with weekly or biweekly reports beginning after the primary during an election year. Condos also said he may suggest that the Legislature require super PACs to disclose, within 24 hours, any contribution exceeding $2,000 and made within 30 days of the election.

A disclosure bill would originate in the House Government Operations Committee; if there are potential constitutional conflicts, it would also be brought to the Judiciary Committee, and the Appropriations Committee would need to approve funding for the electronic campaign finance system.

Condos said his ideas for reform aren’t new but the advent of super PACS may finally be the impetus that motivates lawmakers to take action.

“I’ve been advocating that for more than two years but the Legislature didn’t give me any money to do it.” Now, he said, “they know that the landscape has changed in Vermont.”

Condos said the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that disclosure is the only tool states can use to mitigate the impact of super PAC spending.

“Does disclosure solve the problem? No, but at least it shines a light on it.”

Though the U.S. Supreme Court left this door open for legislative action, Condos said, “We’ll probably get sued on it.”

Alicia Freese

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