Lt. Gov. Molly Gray has accused Sen. Becca Balint, seen here last year, of potentially illegal coordination with an outside group. Balint’s team has argued the lieutenant governor’s campaign is trying to make a commonplace campaign practice appear sinister. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray’s congressional campaign is taking one last swing at state Sen. Becca Balint on issues of campaign finance ahead of Tuesday’s primary, this time accusing her chief rival of potentially illegal coordination with an outside group.

Balint has been the beneficiary of over $1.3 million in outside spending, the bulk of which has come from the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a hybrid political action committee which works to elect out LGBTQ+ candidates across the country. 

In a Sunday morning press release, the Gray camp seized on Twitter posts from Victory Fund staffer Marty Rouse, showing him on the trail alongside Balint and several of her top campaign staffers. Gray’s campaign said the posts “raise questions” about “illegal coordination” between Balint’s campaign and the Victory Fund.

“Rouse’s activity with the Balint campaign appears to clearly violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the law in a brazen and appalling fashion,” Gray campaign manager Samantha Sheehan said in a statement on Sunday. “The Balint campaign needs to explain this to voters.”

The Balint camp and Victory Fund have strenuously denied the Gray campaign’s accusation — and argued that the lieutenant governor’s campaign is trying to make a commonplace campaign practice appear sinister.

“Wow. It’s almost like the Gray campaign is INTENTIONALLY trying re-write campaign finance law!” Julia Barnes, a top Balint adviser who previously served as executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party and as a senior campaign staffer to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., posted to Twitter on Monday. “Call a lawyer & ask them to explain the basics before you keep smearing people’s character.”

The public social media posts in question also feature Rouse alongside several other Vermont candidates, including Mike Pieciak, who is gay and running uncontested for state treasurer, and posed in a group shot with Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker.

Super PACs can spend unlimited sums of money on advertisements for or against particular candidates, but they can’t coordinate directly with campaigns or donate money to them. A hybrid PAC such as the Victory Fund, however, can both spend uncapped amounts of money in a race and work directly with a campaign. (Politico has called hybrid PACs the new “super super PAC.”) 

Hybrid PACs must maintain an internal separation between the part of the organization supporting candidates directly and the part spending large sums on their behalf. In a statement, Victory Fund press secretary Albert Fujii said the organization had done just that. 

The group follows “strict legal guidance on who can coordinate with the campaign and who can work on independent expenditures, and there is a strong firewall in-between as is standard practice,” Fujii said, adding Rouse is “clearly allowed by law to coordinate directly with the campaign.”

“We have been very transparent about our work in Vermont to support Becca’s historic campaign, including providing critical on-the-ground support ahead of Election Day,” Fujii said. “Gray’s attempts to disparage our organization and efforts to elect LGBTQ leaders to office will not distract Vermonters. The Gray campaign very well knows this accusation is baseless and their decision to perpetuate falsehoods will only further undermine trust in our electoral system.”

The Gray campaign has repeatedly sought to turn Balint’s support from LGBTQ+ and progressive PACs into a liability, demanding that Balint join her in a press conference denouncing outside spending. They’ve also called attention to Balint’s apparent use of a “red box,” a tactic by which campaigns can skirt legal prohibitions against coordinating with PACs.

The Balint campaign has criticized Gray in turn for taking aim at LGBTQ+ groups — particularly given a worsening national climate around LGBTQ+ rights — and argued a press conference itself could constitute illegal coordination. (The reported red box has been taken down, and Balint has said she did not know about it.)

“It is disappointing that on the last day of this primary the Gray campaign has once again decided to not talk about the issues, but has actually graduated to making stuff up,” said Balint campaign manager Natalie Silver.

Asked if the Gray campaign had any evidence the Victory Fund staffer they had singled out had indeed worked on the PAC’s independent expenditures, Sheehan appeared to acknowledge that they did not.

“I just posed a question that is fair for a reporter to ask and for the Balint campaign to answer,” she responded.

VTDigger's political reporter.