Democratic PACS fight back in local races
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | October 31,2012
MONTPELIER — Having seen more than 40 of their local candidates targeted by a Republican super PAC in recent weeks, House Democrats on Monday launched a counteroffensive aimed at neutralizing the conservative group’s impact on tight races.
In a series of radio advertisements and mailings, the Vermont House Solidarity PAC and the Vermont Democratic House Campaign chide Vermonters First for contaminating local politics with outside money.
Fueled by nearly $700,000 from a single donor, Vermonters First has used radio ads and glossy mailings to target local Democratic candidates who, according to the super PAC, want to expand the sales tax and revoke Medicare.
With a mass media budget of only about $10,000, Nick Charyk, head of the Vermont Democratic House Campaign, said he won’t come close to matching the expenditures by Vermonters First. But he said Democrats couldn’t let the GOP campaign go uncontested.
“In a perfect world I wouldn’t spend any money on this sort of broad messaging,” Charyk said Monday.
“But after four rounds of these mailings, the last of which targeted my folks by name, it became clear we had to do something to counter this message.”
Mailings headed to voters in select districts are graphically almost indistinguishable from the anti-Democratic versions produced by Vermonters First.
“I wanted people to read our mailing with those (Vermonters First) pieces in mind,” Charyk said.
Whereas the Vermonters First mailings rail against the ills of “one party rule,” Charyk’s version touts the virtues of nonpartisanship.
“When Irene hit, we came together as Vermonters to rebuild our state,” reads a quote on the mailing from House Speaker Shap Smith. “In the Legislature, it didn’t matter if you were a Republican or a Democrat. We were all in it together.”
To underscore the message, the other side of the mailing features a quote from House Minority Leader Don Turner in which he praises Smith’s work during the redistricting process earlier this year.
“We really appreciate the effort of the majority leadership, and the speaker, to allow us to work with them to obtain a reasonable resolution to the redistricting puzzle,” says the quote from Turner, a Milton Republican. “We’re thankful that we were able to work together.”
The mass media offensive includes four radio spots, one of which features Smith.
“This election season we have seen some misleading ads that claim to represent everyday Vermonters,” Smith says in the spot. “Since our first town meeting, Vermont has been a state where everyone’s voice is heard. Your vote is your voice — don’t let it be drowned out by big money this Election Day.”
It was the first-ever radio ad for Smith, who said claims being made by Vermonters First “aren’t something you want to leave unrebutted.”
“I just don’t think that it’s a good idea to run democracy by allowing the person who has the most money to participate the most,” Smith said.
Smith in May provided Vermonters First with one of its enduring talking points when he said during a post-session news conference that he wanted to expand the sales tax to include many professional services. The expansion, he said then, would allow lawmakers to lower overall sales tax rates.
Vermonters First pounced, featuring Smith’s plan in mailings, television ads and other mass media activities.
Having since learned that the concept lacks any support in Montpelier, Smith said he’s retracted the plan. Gov. Peter Shumlin and Rep. Janet Ancel, chairwoman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, have both said the idea is a nonstarter.
“They picked up on a stray comment that I had made at a press conference right after the session,” Smith said Monday. “The thing that I think has been troubling to me is that even after the speaker of the House says we’re not going to do it, the governor says we’re not interested in doing it, and the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee says she’s not interested in it, they’re saying we’re going to do it, and it’s just not true.”
The Vermont House Solidarity PAC and the Vermont Democratic House Campaign have taken in nearly $200,000 this cycle, far more than the GOP equivalents working on behalf of Republican candidates.
Charyk, however, said that, unlike Vermonters First, his PACs have drawn support in the form of smaller donations from a broad cross-section of Vermonters.
He said the bulk of his budget has gone to a modest salary and benefits for him over the past two years, which he said have been devoted to recruiting candidates and generating grass-roots support for them.
“The difference here is we’re about people power and community-based campaigning, not dumping a bunch of money into ads,” he said.
When it comes to mass media expenditures, Charyk figures he’s probably spending a penny for every dollar invested by Vermonters First. Democrats wield an enormous numbers advantage in the House, where they held 94 seats in 2011 and 2012. Republicans had 48 seats.
Charyk said it’s unclear what kind of effect Vermonters First is having on local races.
“I don’t think it’s winning votes, but it is getting noticed,” Charyk said. “My concern is if you repeat a lie enough times without someone calling it out, it starts to gain resonance regardless of whether it’s actually true or not.”
Radio spots in the Democratic ad blitz try to put a spotlight on the source of the anti-Democratic rhetoric arriving in voters’ mailboxes.
“Who should I vote for — the candidate I know and trust? Or should I vote against them because that wealthy Vermonters First PAC told me to?” one ad says. “They falsely claim Democrats want to tax services. That’s bad. They paid thousands to consultants in Virginia to try and mislead me. … At least their postcards make decent kindling, and that’s good.”