MONTPELIER — She’s one of the biggest players in Vermont elections this year, and she isn’t even running for office.
According to campaign finance disclosures unveiled Monday evening, Burlington resident Lenore Broughton has plowed nearly $700,000 into a super PAC touting Republican candidates up and down the general election ballot.
Broughton has yet to return calls from reporters this year, and the lone staff member of the PAC to which she’s contributed, called Vermonters First, also has not responded to recent calls from the media. But her well-funded attempts to influence the races for treasurer and auditor are expected by some to tilt the playing field Nov. 6.
“In effect, Vermonters First has taken over the political activity that used to be conducted by the Vermont Republican Party and Republican candidates,” said Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College. “The question I think is this: Can one well-heeled donor make up for a party that appears to lack grassroots support?”
Vermonters First landed in the public eye six weeks ago when it began airing television advertisements touting Wendy Wilton and Vince Illuzzi, Republican candidates for treasurer and auditor, respectively.
Soon after, anti-single-payer ads funded by the PAC began gracing network television. Vermonters First’s electoral portfolio now includes web ads, statewide mailings for candidates for the state House and Senate, and a polished website warning voters against the ills of “one party rule.”
All told, Broughton has given more than $680,000 to the PAC, including $558,000 in the last 30 days.
She was its only donor until the most recent reporting period, during which three others combined gave less than $1,000.
The group has spent $561,000, most of which went to Target Enterprises, a political consulting firm based in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Late last week, Vermonters First cut a $17,500 check to Public Opinion Strategies, a polling outfit in Alexandria, Va.
It’s difficult to pinpoint how much Vermonters First has spent backing individual candidates, though Wilton, Illuzzi and the anti-single-payer message seem to be the primary beneficiaries.
“I think it’s incredibly disturbing that millionaire Lenore Broughton would attempt to influence elections in such a dramatic fashion,” said Ryan Emerson, campaign manager for Democratic candidate for treasurer Beth Pearce. “We do know that advertising works. It’s not as effective as direct voter contact, but it does make a difference.”
Emerson said the outside expenditures are particularly frustrating given the fact that Pearce has out-raised Wilton considerably in every reporting period to date. Pearce took in $53,435 over the last 30 days to Wilton’s $24,489; for the campaign to date, Pearce has taken in $186,179 to Wilton’s $74,755.
Pearce’s advantage is even heavier when it comes to cash on hand: The Democratic incumbent had $48,000 in the bank as of Monday; her Republican challenger had less than $6,000.
In a treasurer’s race where both candidates suffer from lack of name recognition — incumbent Pearce has never previously run for office and was appointed to the post when Jeb Spaulding resigned to serve as secretary of the administration — Broughton’s advertisements have more than made up for Wilton’s difficulties with fundraising.
When Democratic/Progressive candidate for auditor Doug Hoffer Googled his name recently, he was surprised by the top result, a Google ad that proclaimed “Doug Hoffer wrong for VT — Vermont needs real leaders.” A separate Google ad says “Hoffer is Inexperienced — Doug Hoffer has never held office.”
Both ads link to a YouTube clip featuring the television ad produced by Vermonters First on behalf of Illuzzi.
“While they’re entitled unfortunately by law to do what they’re doing on behalf of (Illuzzi) and (Wilton) and other people, this kind of negativity I think for down-ticket races is unheard of, and that’s disappointing,” Hoffer said Monday.
Whereas Vermonters First’s expenditures in the treasurer’s race have delivered a financial edge to Wilton, Illuzzi already wields a monetary edge over Hoffer.
Illuzzi, a 32-year Republican state senator from Essex County, took in $10,555 last month for a total of $74,527. Hoffer raised $14,427 over the last 30 days for a total of $47,427.
“The odd part is that you can’t honestly blame (Illuzzi). You can’t blame your opponent,” Hoffer said.
Super PACs by law can raise unlimited sums from individual donors but are prohibited from coordinating their activities with the candidates on whose behalf they’re making expenditures.
“(Illuzzi) didn’t ask for this presumably,” Hoffer said. “But he is unquestionably the beneficiary.”
Illuzzi and Wilton have differing views on the super PAC trying to deliver them a November victory. Illuzzi on Monday lamented the role of the outside money, saying he’d prefer to see the candidates win or lose on their own merits.
“I have made clear whenever possible that I would rather run my own campaign with funds that I have raised from people who believe in me,” Illuzzi said.
He said he’s never met Broughton and had never heard of her before her super PAC began running ads on his behalf.
“I just don’t like the whole premise of these campaigns essentially being taken over by sources which are either unknown or over which you have no control,” Illuzzi said.
Wilton, who served with Broughton on the board of Vermonters for a Better Education, a nonprofit that advocates for school choice, took a brighter view of the outside expenditures.
“What’s interesting to me is I don’t think they would be doing what they’re doing unless they felt very strongly about the candidates they’re supporting,” Wilton said. “I think they’re really looking at the candidates and where they see someone they think is worthy of support and capable of winning … they’re putting a lot of money into it.”
Asked when she last saw Broughton, Wilton said she couldn’t recall. “It was a long time ago. I’d have to think about it,” Wilton said. “I don’t recall.”
Pressed, Wilton said she hadn’t seen Broughton in over a year.
“They certainly have every right to say good things about me,” Wilton said. “That’s part of democracy.”
If Broughton invests more money in her super PAC between now and Nov. 6, Vermonters won’t find out about it until after the election, since the next campaign finance reporting deadline isn’t until Nov. 15.
Other candidates for statewide office revealed their last campaign finance reports before the general election.
In the race for governor, incumbent Peter Shumlin raised $172,906 over the last 30 days for a total of $1.16 million. He has slightly more than $1 million in the bank, and campaign manager Alex MacLean said the Democrat will hit the television airwaves with advertisements later this week. Republican challenger Randy Brock raised $44,979 last month for a total of $692,322, which includes a $300,000 personal loan. The Brock campaign has $107,000 in the bank.
In the race for attorney general, Republican challenger Jack McMullen raised nearly $159,000 over the past month, all but $14,480 of which came in the form of a loan from himself. More than three-quarters of McMullen’s approximately $200,000 fundraising total to date has come from his own pocket.
Democratic Attorney General William Sorrell, who is running without a campaign manager, took in $12,307 last month for a total of $141,585, most of which was raised during his hard-fought primary with TJ Donovan.
In his first filing of the campaign, Progressive candidate for attorney general Ed Stanak reported raising $4,190.
In the race for lieutenant governor, Republican Phil Scott raised $54,271 last month for a total of $150,560. Progressive/Democratic challenger Cassandra Gekas took in $11,578 over the past 30 days for a total of $38,830.
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