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Democratic Donors Give Big As GOP's Money Woes Grow

John Dillon
VPR file
David Sunderland, chairman of the Vermont GOP, says the VDP's fundraising advantage doesn't come as a surprise.

Money doesn’t always win elections. But it sure helps. And that’s bad news for Republicans in Vermont as they head onto the campaign trail this summer.

The Vermont Democratic Party has for years now enjoyed a financial advantage over its Republican counterpart. But recent campaign finance filings suggest the fiscal divide is deepening.

According to the latest filings with the Federal Elections Commission, the Vermont Democratic Party’s federal committee has taken in $186,000 in contributions and other receipts since the beginning of the year. That’s nearly three times as much as the Vermont GOP.

And those latest filings don’t include donations related to a Democratic fundraiser featuring Elizabeth Warren this week that is expected to bring in more than $100,000.

A graph summarizing receipts by Vermont political parties, as reported to the Federal Elections Commission.

David Sunderland, chairman of the Vermont GOP, says the VDP’s fundraising advantage doesn’t come as a surprise.  And he doesn’t anticipate his organization will close the gap.

“But I’m convinced that a good message and a message that identifies with Vermonters and offers real solutions to the problems they’re facing will resonate,” Sunderland says.

Sunderland thinks that message will yield an influx in donations. His optimism comes despite a 2012 election cycle in which the Democrats’ superior fundraising apparatus paid for a well-staffed field organization that was partly responsible for such lopsided GOP losses.

With Gov. Peter Shumlin wielding a more than $1 million advantage over his newly announced Republican opponents, and no GOP contenders for other statewide offices, the Vermont Democratic Party will be able to invest disproportionate sums in local House and Senate races. 

And money from the Democratic Party doesn’t include financial backing from groups like Vermont CURE, which has said it aims to raise a half-million dollars this year to support candidates who support single-payer health care.

House Minority Leader Don Turner says the GOP’s financial disadvantage will make for a high hurdle for Republicans to clear in their quest for gains in the Legislature.

The Vermont Democratic Party has a paid staff of four, a number that will ramp up as fall nears. During the last cycle, Democrats had a staff of as large as 17. The money paid for things such as 90 phones in nine offices across the state, and allowed it to run a voter-turnout operation that dwarfed the one mounted by the GOP.

“The vast difference in money is overwhelming,” Turner says. “I mean, there’s so much more money on the Democratic side than there is on the Republican side, and that’s a huge challenge to overcome.”

Money tends to follow power in politics, which means incumbents have a built in advantage over their challengers. Eric Davis, a retired professor of political science at Middlebury College, says it’ll be tough for the GOP to even the financial playing field, given Shumlin and the Democrats’ near lock on the limited corporate donor base in this state.

“Especially businesses that are either regulated by the state, subsidized by the state or do business with the state,” Davis says. “So the Republican Party doesn’t really have too many sources that they can look to for financial support.”

The prospect of Democratic party money flowing into local races is a daunting one for Republican candidates like Dustin Degree, a former House representative who is now trying to win a Senate seat in Franklin County.

“And it’s difficult for candidates from places that don’t have a whole lot of money, where folks are really struggling right now. It’s tough to get your name out there, especially when you know that there’s help on the way from the other side if you start to do well,” says Degree, whose competition includes former Democratic Sen. Sara Kittell.

Turner says he doesn’t think the GOP has convinced would-be donors that the money will be put to good use.

“And I think that people want to invest in candidates or parties that can prove that they can make a difference,” Turner says. “And we haven’t been able to do that.”

But Turner says his candidates won’t shrink in the face of the challenge before them. And he says he remains convinced that the candidates fielded by the GOP for House races in 2014 – Turner says they have 82, the secretary of state’s website list only 77 – can inspire voters, and donors, to come forward with financial support this summer and fall.

“We know we have to get down and work hard, and that’s what we’re doing,” Turner says.

Davis says he isn’t so sure the Vermont Republican Party can rebound from its decade-long slide in Vermont.

“And I increasingly wonder whether the viable path for the organization that’s now called the Republican Party in Vermont is simply to drop the name ‘Republican,’ disaffiliate with the national Republican Party, and form some sort of opposition party … that’s a locally based Vermont party,” Davis says.

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