A former Democratic power broker from California famously said that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” If the saying holds true, then Republican Scott Milne’s newborn gubernatorial campaign is going hungry.
The latest campaign finance filings show Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin increasing his financial advantage over his Republican challengers. And Milne, Shumlin’s best-known opponent, has managed to raise only about $20,000 since announcing his candidacy last month.
Milne, however, says the pundit class has assigned outsized important to the role of money in politics. And despite having raised only $20,000 so far in his quest to unseat an incumbent governor sitting on nearly $1.1 million, Milne says Vermonters, especially those struggling to make ends meet, will appreciate his position.
“I don’t think they like the idea of you know $2 million, $3 million governor campaign,” Milne says.
But Bertram Johnson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, says that for a political neophyte like Milne especially, twenty grand isn’t going to cut it. For better or worse, Johnson says that in politics, money matters.
“I like to put it this way – money cannot buy you an election, but lack of money can lose you an election,” Johnson said.
No matter how compelling a politician’s platform, Johnson says it won’t translate into votes unless the candidate can bring his message to the masses. While headlines in local papers might help some with name recognition, Johnson says the grassroots organizing and media buys needed to connect with the mainstream electorate is expensive.
“And if you don’t have that much money, then people may just not hear of you or hear of your message,” Johnson says.
Johnson says that even in a small media market like Vermont, a successful gubernatorial candidacy will need resources measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollar, not tens of thousands.
Money has become a campaign issue in the other major statewide contest this year. Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor Dean Corren has qualified for public financing, and will receive $200,000 in taxpayer money to finance his challenge to Republican incumbent Phil Scott.
Corren says his public money is “clean” – free of the expectation of favor and access that he says accompany private donations to political candidates.
“Who pays the piper gets to call the tune,” Corren says. “It’s just silly to think that wealthy people who didn’t generally get wealthy by being stupid ... are going to invest their money in something that doesn’t have a payoff. It’s just foolish.”
Scott, who says he’s uncomfortable with the concept of taking money from taxpayers who might not even support his candidacy, raised about $52,000 over the last four months. He has said he plans to raise enough to match Corren’s $200,000 war chest, which it would be more than he raised in either of his first two campaigns. Scott says he’s accepted money from businesses over the course of his 14-year career in politics. Never once, he says, did it influence his governance.
“My first question isn’t, ‘did you give to my campaign?’ My first question is always, ‘what can we do to help?’” Scott says.
Shumlin has raised about $93,000 since the last campaign finance filing in March, and has taken in $416,000 since the last election, most of it in the form of larger donations from individuals and businesses living outside out of Vermont.
All but about $2,000 of Milne’s campaign money came from out of state; five members of a single family account for one half of his entire haul.
As for Corren’s assertions about the corrupting influence of money in politics, Johnson says that while the contributions certainly appear to improve donors’ access to elected officials, it’s “less clear that that access translates into direct influence.”
But Johnson says the campaign finance disclosures do reveal a candidate’s allies. Milne’s seems to have friends in the “Boies” family for instance, five members of which gave him a total of $10,000; members of the family hail from New York and Naples, Florida. Shumlin’s fundraising allies are far more numerous, but include, for example, Coca Cola and the beverage distribution industry, which gave him a combined $8,000 in the last eight months alone.
“Because contributions tend to come mostly from allies, we can look at those contributions, and we can tell who somebody’s allies are, which is pretty informative for somebody who’s looking to make a vote choice later on,” Johnson said.
Candidates will report their fundraising activities again in August.