Follow the money: a look at statewide campaign spending this election

Campaign signs line Main Street in Stowe on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The 2020 election season ended Nov. 3, resulting in a leadership shakeup in the Legislature, an overwhelming victory for Republican Gov. Phil Scott, and the election of Democrat Molly Gray as the fourth female lieutenant governor in Vermont’s history.

On Tuesday, campaigns, political parties and action committees filed their first post-election finance filings with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, offering a  picture of how the money was spent during a political season dominated by social distancing and Covid-19 precautions.

Scott and Democratic nominee David Zuckerman spent a little more than $1 million on the governor’s race, according to the latest filings, while $882,513 went into the more competitive lieutenant governor’s race.

Zuckerman, the outgoing lieutenant governor who challenged Scott, raised and spent more money than the incumbent. Since he announced his candidacy in January 2020, the Progressive Democrat spent $719,900; Scott spent $323,718.   

Zuckerman received 99,214 votes on Election Day, placing his total cost at about $7.25 per vote. Scott, who was re-elected in a landslide — buoyed by his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic — spent only $1.30 per vote.

Zuckerman overspent the $699,000 his campaign had raised throughout the year, plowing money into ads on television and social media in the final hours before polls closed. 

The campaign has appeared to spend around $19,000 more than it had raised throughout the election cycle. Last week, the Zuckerman team sent an email to supporters asking for contributions to cover $4,000 in debts.

In the campaign for lieutenant governor, Republican businessman Scott Milne outspent Gray, $492,850 to $389,663. Gray received 49% of the votes, spending $2.13 for each one, while Milne spent $3.13 per vote, a full dollar more.

PACs at play

Three key three political action committees were involved in the races for governor and lieutenant governor this year.

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A Stronger Vermont, the pro-Scott PAC, got an early boost in February 2020 when the Republican Governors Association gave it $100,000, according to its campaign finance disclosure

In early May, A Stronger Vermont released an ad praising Scott’s Covid-19 response. It placed another in August attacking Zuckerman.

But the PAC and the Republican Governors Association ended up playing a minimal role as it became clear that Scott didn’t need their help. Scott won 67% of the vote; Zuckerman just 26%. 

A Stronger Vermont spent $218,000 on pro-Scott messaging during 2020. In 2018, it spent nearly $700,000 on Scott’s victory over Democrat Christine Hallquist.

The other two PACs involved in Vermont’s campaigns this year were the Republican State Leadership Committee, which spent $209,000 on a pro-Scott Milne ad campaign, and the Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund, which spent $83,000 — the bulk on media buys — in support of Gray. .

Gray sought to distance herself from the Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund, which spread false information about Milne’s voting history. However, she and the PAC called out Milne for receiving the backing of  the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has ties to Koch Industries.

Democrat Molly Gray, left, and Republican Scott Milne during a Lt. Governor’s candidate debate hosted by VTDigger on September 24. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Party time

Presidential election years are usually when political parties fill the coffers ahead of the midterm elections.

In Vermont, there is uncertainty about the rumored retirement of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who will be 80 in March and is up for reelection in 2022.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who turned 79 in September, is serving a term that runs until 2024, but there is speculation that Vermont’s junior senator might be tapped by the Biden administration, which would lead to a special election.

While it remains to be seen if Leahy decides to retire or run again in 2022, he enters the election window with $1.4 million in cash on hand. He raised $267,000 in the past year.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who on Nov. 3 easily won reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives, moves ahead with a campaign warchest of more than $2 million.

After a lucrative fundraising event in February, the Vermont Democratic Party has been busy, raising a total of $232,578, and has a $41,818 fundraising surplus from last cycle. But the party barely broke even after spending more than $269,000 this year.

Vermont’s Republican Party is in a similar financial position, as it, too, heads into the next two years with a depleted war chest. The Republican Party raised just over $54,000 up until the Nov. 3 election, on top of just $8,671 from the previous year. 

The GOP spent the bulk of that money — $51,000 — on three seats in the Vermont House of Representatives, including one held by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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