In recent election cycles, super PACs have sought to influence electoral contests from the governor on down in Vermont — and 2018 is proving to be no exception.
Last month, a few days before the primary election in Vermont, postcards began showing up in the mailboxes of residents across Washington County.
They’d been sent by a group called Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund, and they urged people to vote for Andrew Perchlik in a local race for the state Senate.
“He’s a champion for the environment, a champion for addressing climate change and addressing the state’s energy needs,” said Bill Lofy, a veteran political consultant and the treasurer of Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund.
Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund is a political action committee, but it’s not your garden variety PAC.
As an independent expenditure group — commonly known as a “super PAC” — it can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the outcome of political contests in Vermont, so long as it doesn’t coordinate with the candidates it’s trying to help.
Perchlik would go on to win his race. And it’s impossible to know whether the postcards, phone calls and social media ads funded by Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund made the difference for Perchlik, but Lofy said it probably didn’t hurt.
“Having the ability to raise and spend resources on behalf of a champion like him is one tool for having an influence in the electoral process,” Lofy said.
It’s been less than a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in the case, called Citizens United, that gave rise to super PACs. But the ruling has already changed the face of campaign finance in the United States.
Super PACs spend frugally sometimes — Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund expended only about $3,000 to boost Perchlik’s electoral prospects. But in other cases, they mount higher-dollar campaigns.
In 2016 alone, super PACs spent more than $5 million in Vermont, mostly on TV, internet and radio ads in the race for governor. That’s more than the two major-party candidates for governor spent combined.
Five super PACs have already registered in Vermont for the 2018 election cycle. One of them, called A Stronger Vermont, has raised more than a half million dollars to support Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
Voters by and large appear to be uneasy with this new phenomenon. A recent poll by the Pew Research Survey found that 77 percent of Americans favor new limits on outside political spending.
David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, said those concerns are misplaced.
“Super PACs are really just organizations of people banding together to speak jointly,” Keating said. “Last time I checked we still had a First Amendment which says we have the right to free speech and we have the right to a free press.”
Keating actually started the first super PAC in the country, called SpeechNow. It was the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court test case that broke the dam on elections spending. And Keating said that was a good thing.
“Far from being a perversion of the process, this is exactly what the First Amendment was written for — to protect our right to speak out about candidates and government,” Keating said.
And all those political ads super PACs are paying for? Keating said it means more voters are paying more attention to electoral contests.
“What political science research has found is ... when more information is provided to voters on any candidate, on any issue, it tends to drive turnout up,” Keating said.
Chisun Lee, senior counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, agreed that super PACs have become a new force in politics.
“Unlimited outside spending has quite profoundly changed American politics in just a decade or so,” Lee said.
However, Lee said those changes are not for the better: Super PACs may have amplified speech in the elections process, but she said the people funding that speech aren’t exactly a representative cross-section of the American electorate.
“Political power has become even more concentrated in the hands of the fraction of the wealthiest 1 percent that actually fund these organizations,” Lee said.
And Lee said it isn’t always clear who’s funding that speech. State and federal laws require super PACs to disclose the source of their funding, but loopholes abound.
The Brennan Center recently studied elections spending in six states. Before the Citizens United decision, Lee said, voters could tell where about 75 percent of independent spending was coming from.
“After Citizens United, by 2014 across these same states, you could only tell where 29 percent of independent spending was really coming from,” Lee said.
She called this lack of transparency the “gray money” problem. In Vermont, ferreting out the precise source of super PACs' largesse can be tricky.
Identifying the donors supporting Vermont Conservation Voters Action Fund is straightforward enough — the group has raised a total of $18,000 this cycle from two donors: property developer Elizabeth Steele and renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf.
But A Stronger Vermont, which has raised $500,000 so far this cycle, lists only one donor — the Republican Governors Association. That Washington, D.C.-based organization has already raised $113 million for the 2018 election cycle. And while the people funding the group are disclosed in documents on file at the Internal Revenue Service, it’s impossible to know who’s money is being used to influence elections in Vermont.
“So this is a dramatic sea change in transparency,” Lee said.
Todd Bailey, a lobbyist at Leonine Public Affairs in Montpelier, said he thinks super PACs have had two major effects on electioneering in Vermont.
“The first is a lot more money flows into the lower down-ticket legislative races,” Bailey said. “The individual candidates are under pressure to raise more money. More money is just being spent generally in those races, and therefore it’s having more of an influence.”
Secondly, Bailey said, outside groups are in some cases “forcing issues into a campaign that wouldn’t otherwise naturally occur.”
A national progressive group, called MoveOn.org, for example, has indicated it plans to register a super PAC in Vermont, to support Democratic candidate for governor Christine Hallquist.
“But they’ll probably choose some [issues] that are more in line with their national agenda than what we expect to be taken up in Vermont necessarily in the next legislative session,” Bailey said.
Bailey said retail politics still reign in Vermont, and that outside spending alone is unlikely to tip the balance for an otherwise flawed candidate. But, he said it’s a new ripple in the landscape that candidates, and political parties, have to contend with.
“I think though there’s just an additional outside influence that will not only change the way candidates kind of look at the landscape,” Bailey said, “but also in the way that they react to the landscape.”