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Outside Money Fuels High Dollar Governor's Race

screenshot of YouTube video
The 30 second ad, published to YouTube Monday, features footage and audio of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. The ad was paid for by a super PAC registered to the Republican Governors Association. Scott's campaign says they did not provide the material.

Vermonters apparently aren’t the only ones interested in the outcome of this year’s race for governor. The Republican Governors Association has already poured more than $600,000 into the contest, and it’s likely just the beginning of what could be record spending by outside groups in a Vermont election.

The latest political ad to hit Vermont’s airwaves features a voice that is by now familiar to most voters here.

“Folks are struggling,” the narrator says. “They’re working two and three jobs trying to get by. What we need to do is focus on the economy. And we’re not in this alone, we can do it together.”

But the narrator – Republican candidate for governor Phil Scott – didn’t pay for that ad, nor did his campaign. That distinction belongs to “A Stronger Vermont,” the super PAC registered here by the Republican Governors Association earlier this year.

It’s been less than a month since Scott won his party’s nomination. But the Washington, D.C.-based political organization has already poured $600,000 into the race, most of it to produce and air advertisements like the one that debuted Tuesday.

Denise Roth Barber is managing director of the National Institute for Money in State Politics, better known as Barber says these kinds of expenditures are standard practice for groups like the RGA.

“They’ll come in, they’ll select races that they deem competitive,” Roth Barber says.

What isn’t standard, for Vermont at least, is the size of the investment the RGA has made. In 2010, the last time this state featured an open seat for governor, the RGA spent a total of $755,000. They’ve nearly matched that sum already, and Election Day is still two months away.

The Democratic Governors Association has so far spent a comparatively measly $100,000 in support of Sue Minter. But Sterling Clifford, the treasurer of the super PAC the DGA set up here, says people can expect to see that figure rise considerably before too long.

“We’re absolutely committed to making a significant investment in support of Sue Minter for governor,” Clifford says.

The RGA did not return repeated requests for an interview.

Roth Barber says there’s a reason these state-level races are so attractive to outside groups.

“State races are by comparison to federal races, much cheaper, and so dollars go a long way,” Roth Barber says. “If enough money is spent, they definitely have a larger voice during the election process.”

It’s been six years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Citizens United decision that ushered in the era of unlimited political spending by outside groups. But it’s still unclear what kind of impact that spending has on the outcome of races. Also unclear, according to Roth Barber, is how outside spending influences the candidates that benefit from it.

“That’s the $1 million quid pro quo question – whether the money provided during an election has an impact on these lawmakers’ policies,” Roth Barber says.

"That's the $1 million quid pro quo question — whether the money provided during an election has an impact on these lawmakers' policies." — Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute for Money in State Politics

The amount spent by the RGA so far rivals the sum raised by Phil Scott himself. The RGA’s financial resources come from a range of well-heeled contributors, Koch Industries being the highest among them.

But the RGA and the DGA have plenty of overlap when it comes to where their financial support comes from. Eight of the top 20 donors to the RGA this cycle are also among the top 20 givers to the DGA. They include the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Travelers insurance companies, and Wal-Mart.

“You know, when companies contribute and get engaged with political spending, they are definitely doing so as an investment in their company’s interest,” Roth Barber says.

She says that investment pays off in one notable form.

“They want to be able to talk to whoever wins after Election Day,” she says.

The RGA and the DGA will both be spending heavily over the next eight weeks to make sure it’s their candidate those companies will be talking to.

Federal elections law prohibits super PACs from coordinating with the candidates they’re trying to elect to office. The RGA’s ads feature extensive audio and video footage of Scott on the campaign trail.

Scott’s campaign manager Brittney Wilson says no one working with the campaign provided the material.

“In no way is there way is there any coordination, and it’s something that we take very seriously,” Wilson says.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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