Outside Groups Poured Big Money Into Vermont’s Primary. Did It Pay Off?

Aug 12, 2016

Bob Sherman knows his way around Vermont politics better than most. And when the retired Montpelier lobbyist decided he wanted to give Sue Minter a lift in her bid for the Democratic nomination for governor, he decided start super PAC.

“Some people don’t like it,” Sherman says. “But it’s legal, and it’s effective.”

Sherman is correct on two fronts: People definitely don’t like it, and it’s perfectly legal. The question of whether or not it’s effective is another matter altogether.

“It’s always been hard to say whether or not money directly affects the outcomes of races,” says Sarah Bryner, the director of research at the Center for Responsive Politics. “And so it’s hard to say whether that’s actually influencing the outcomes in these races, which are already sort of more up in the air.”

Outside groups poured nearly $400,000 into gubernatorial races during the last week of the primary campaign. And there’s every reason to believe that super PACs will spend even more money in the general election.

Bryner notes, however, that it's unclear what kind of impact these expenditures have on the outcomes of Vermont elections. The Center for Responsive Politics is a Washington, D.C.-based group that has tried to put a spotlight on the role of money in elections nationwide.

Outside groups poured nearly $400,000 into gubernatorial races during the last week of the primary campaign.

Bryner says the confluence of factors at play in tight political races make it difficult to tease out the precise role of outside expenditures. Was the $120,000 Sherman’s super PAC used to buy up ads for Sue Minter in the closing days of her race a factor in her victory? Perhaps. But what about the $220,000 a Silicon Valley billionaire poured into her rival Matt Dunne’s campaign?

The money may buy precious air time for a candidate. But it can also attract negative scrutiny, especially from voters like Jonathan Weker of Montpelier.

“I call Citizens United the Death to America decision, personally.” Weker says. “I think it’s a very threatening development.”

Weker says he fears that candidates getting help from special interests will inevitably be beholden to them.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” he says. “And certain concerns are going to get a disproportionate voice, disproportionate attentions.”

"I call Citizens United the Death to America decision, personally." — Jonathan Weker, Montpelier

For those reasons, Weker says he’s less likely to support a candidate that has the support of super PAC. And he isn’t alone.

“You know, dumping large sums of money from one source, it makes a candidate look a little shady,” says Matthew Clover, a voter from Barre. “That kind of raises a hair on the back of my neck a little bit, because what does this group or this person have for a personal stake, in this state that everybody should have a stake in?”

Bryner says most American voters disapprove of the concept of super PACs. The problem, she says, is that most are unaware when they’re being influenced by them.

“When you’re actually watching a television ad, I think many voters don’t really pay attention to the – ‘this ad was brought to you by Priorities USA’ at the end of it,’” Bryner says.

As for whether super PACs are buying undue influence over the people they’re helping to elect, Bryner says it’s a difficult premise to prove. But she says absence of proof should not assuage voters’ concerns.

“They must be doing that for a reason, other than to just be generous,” Bryner says. “And I think that even in itself, even if they can’t determine policy outcomes, is something that we need to consider.”

An outside group – the Republican Governors Association – has already begun spending money to influence the general election race for governor.