MONTPELIER — With their mass-media buys, televised debates and well-stocked campaign war chests, the Democratic candidates for attorney general have begun a mad dash toward the Aug. 28 finish line.
TJ Donovan and William Sorrell clashed in a live television debate Wednesday evening, when the 38-year-old challenger ratcheted up his increasingly aggressive line of attack against the seven-term incumbent.
On issues ranging from prescription drug abuse to the federal overthrow of three Vermont laws, Donovan passed up few opportunities to criticize Sorrell’s 15-year record in the attorney general’s office.
“There’s a real choice between ambition for change and doing more versus accepting the status quo,” Donovan said.
Sorrell said he encourages voters to scrutinize his resume. Whether pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in court settlements, instituting mental health training for police officers or preventing scammers from preying on vulnerable seniors, Sorrell said, he stands by his record as the state’s top law enforcement officer.
“In 15 years we’ve paid out a little over $5 million for two losses in the same (U.S. Supreme Court) that handed down Citizens United,” Sorrell said, referencing high-profile losses on Vermont statutes dealing with campaign finance and pharmaceutical data mining. “And we’ve brought over $120 million in the door over the past three years. Five million out over the past 15 years and $120 million in, in three? I’ll take that any day.”
The debate came hours after the candidates filed new campaign finance disclosures that saw Donovan increase his fundraising lead over Sorrell.
Donovan took in $37,000 over the past 30 days, for a total of $166,000 for the cycle. Sorrell took in about $22,000 over the past month, for a total of $115,000.
Donovan, however, has spent considerably more than the incumbent. His expenditures include a $10,000 public-opinion poll for which he was chastised by Sorrell on Wednesday evening.
After an exchange in which Donovan chided Sorrell as being out of touch with communities dealing with prescription drug abuse, the incumbent shot back.
“I didn’t need to spend $10,000 a month on a North Carolina polling outfit to tell me what issues are important to Vermonters,” Sorrell said.
All told, Donovan has spent $110,000 of his war chest — including $70,000 over the past 30 days — leaving him with about $56,000 on hand. That’s almost exactly what Sorrell, who has spent only $57,000, has in the bank.
Sorrell, however, has benefited from a super PAC that recently launched a $99,000 television campaign on his behalf. The Committee for Fairness and Justice, registered as an independent-expenditure group with the Federal Elections Commission, is said to be funded largely by the Democratic Attorneys General Association. But as of now, it’s impossible to know who exactly is funding the group.
That’s because, as a federally registered PAC, the group apparently isn’t subject to state disclosure requirements (Vermont-based PACs all had to file reports Wednesday detailing their contributors; the Committee for Fairness and Justice did not).
While the Committee for Fairness and Justice will have to file documents disclosing its contributors with the FEC, the deadline for that disclosure won’t come before the Aug. 28 primary.
“Where is 100K coming from?” Donovan asked Sorrell on Wednesday. “Is it coming from the corporations that fund DAGA? Is it coming from big banks? Big tobacco? Big oil? Monsanto?”
Since state and federal laws prohibit independent-expenditure groups from coordinating with the candidates they support, Sorrell said, he has no idea where the money is coming from.
“And that’s good. And you know why that’s good?” Sorrell said. “No one can question whether I’m showing favoritism in my enforcement of the laws.”
Donovan has begun his own mass-media buys, starting with a radio ad that began airing on stations across the state Tuesday. He said the campaign likely won’t purchase any TV time.
Sorrell said he recently taped a number of radio spots that will begin airing in the days before the vote.
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