Government & Politics

Fundraising in Chittenden Senate race surges ahead of primary

Politicians' signs dot the roadside in Burlington on Wednesday, August 5th, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Fundraising in the competitive Chittenden County Senate race has surged ahead of the Aug. 11 primary, with 13 candidates on the Democratic ballot looking to reach voters in a crowded field. 

In all, the Democratic Senate candidates have raised $270,000 in the current election cycle, nearly matching fundraising in 2016, when 11 Democrats running for the Chittenden County Senate seats raised $274,000 leading up to the primary. 

Learn more about the candidates — and how to vote — in VTDigger's 2020 Voter Guide.

In 2018, candidates for the six seats spent about $77,000 ahead of the primary. 

This year two incumbent senators from Chittenden County — President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, and Sen. Debbie Ingram — stepped down to run for lieutenant governor earlier this year. The open seats generated more interest from new candidates. 

In addition to the 13 Democrats, two Republicans — Tom Chastenay and Ericka Redic — are also seeking the Senate seats in Chittenden County. Neither have filed campaign finance reports.

The top fundraiser in the race so far is Kesha Ram, a former Democratic House representative who ran for lieutenant governor in 2016. 

Ram has brought in $67,000, and spent about $51,000 so far, according to her latest campaign finance disclosure from Aug. 1. 

Ram, who launched her campaign in January, raised the bulk of her money — just under $50,000 — before March 15, and took her focus off of fundraising when the Covid-19 pandemic began. 

"If I wanted to be more strategic about fundraising, there's a chance I could have raised more money," Ram said. "But it felt like 'Let's figure out exactly what we need, and not, you know, try and build a war chest in the middle of a pandemic.'"

Ram has spent thousands of dollars on mailers and advertising with local media companies, including VTDigger. 

Unlike other candidates for Senate, she has also spent thousands on staff. 

Ram has a paid campaign manager, Skyler Nash, and has provided stipends to two other people who have worked on her campaign. 

"What I've seen happen over the years in politics is that candidates lure in young people with the allure of experience and getting your foot in the door," Ram said. "But no one should have to do that without any financial compensation, so it really means a lot to me to be able to pay a team well."

Adam Roof, a former Burlington city councilor, has raised $37,000 and has spent roughly $30,000, according to his Aug. 1 disclosure. He is the only candidate in the race who has paid for a television ad, which is expected to cost $15,000. 

Roof said the TV ad was more affordable than sending out multiple pieces of mail to tens of thousands of addresses in the county. 

"While mail is effective in telling a story and getting your message out, it's cost-prohibitive and it's bad for the environment," Roof said. "And so that's what led us to go into TV, which actually saved us money from a budget perspective."

Thomas Chittenden, a South Burlington city councilor, has raised $40,000. In July, he spent about $20,000, largely on postage and advertisements in local media. 

Assistant Attorney General David Scherr reported he had raised $31,000 as of the Aug. 1 deadline, and spent about $23,000 last month on similar expenses. 

Rep. Dylan Giambatista, D-Essex, has raised $21,000 but said he stopped actively fundraising during the pandemic. 

"Some candidates have made a strategic decision to raise as much money as possible," Giambatista said. "I decided to focus more on my work as a lawmaker, but also on a grassroots campaign that uses outreach that is less resource-dependent." 

Giambatista noted that instead of paying a company to send out his mailings, he and his spouse have prepared and sent out mailers by hand. He says he has focused less on paid advertisements and more on earned media.

For instance, he got some media coverage after recording an album for his campaign.  

Other candidates in the Democratic primary reported less than $20,000 in fundraising to date as of Aug. 1. June Heston has raised $19,995. Erhard Mahnke reported he’d raised $17,224 as of the most recent filing deadline. Louis Meyers reported total contributions of $17,076. Steve May had not filed a campaign finance report as of Aug. 9, but reported $5,816 in fundraising as of July 1.

Compared to many of the candidates in the race, the four incumbent Chittenden County senators — Sens. Ginny Lyons, Chris Pearson, Phil Baruth and Michael Sirotkin—have brought in far less money. Sirotkin has raised $6,500, Pearson has brought in $6,000, and Lyons has reported $1,500. Baruth hasn’t raised any funds. 

The senators say the extended legislative session prompted by Covid-19 gave them less time to campaign and raise funds. The legislative session, which typically wraps up in mid-May ended in June. 

"People are very aggressive about those vacant seats, but it puts some of us at a huge disadvantage," Lyons said. 

"I mean those of us who have been working on Covid-19 issues, and other legislative issues, just timewise haven't had the time to do some of the things that perhaps we'd like to do," she said. 

Pearson said the extended legislative session "really handicapped" the incumbent senators' campaigns. 

"It's not my goal to be outspent 10-to-one. Especially this year where we're so limited on face-to-face campaigning, mail ends up being a priority, I'd like to be more assertive on digital ads," Pearson said. 

"We're way behind and it's unnerving for candidates for sure—I think for all the incumbents, but I'll speak for myself," he said. 

Sens. Pearson, Lyons and Sirotkin have been pooling some resources, and recently sent out campaign postcards featuring the three of them. 

Baruth, who has served in the Senate for 10 years, hasn't raised any money this campaign cycle. 

He, like others, said he didn't want to ask donors for support during the Covid-19 crisis. But he's not surprised that many of the new candidates have focused on fundraising.

"These are all young smart energetic people, so I assumed that they would raise and spend as much as they could," Baruth said. "And I'm not knocking them for doing that, because my first race I did the same thing."

Baruth added that he’s been in the Senate for a decade.

"If there's going to be a race where I could try to depend on word of mouth and not go to my donors, I was hoping that this would be the one."

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.


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