As money rolls into Lamoille County legislative campaign coffers, the question in one of the election races isn’t just how much money has been raised, but who has been writing the checks.
In a debate last week, Shayne Spence, R-Johnson, asked one of his opponents in the Lamoille-2 House district race, Kate Donnally, D-Hyde Park, if she was influenced by out-of-state donations. At the same time, some viewers were asking similar questions of Spence, who accepted money from a conservative donor reported to support candidates who oppose the rights of gay and transgendered people.
Both Spence and Donnally are first-time candidates, and the Lamoille-2 district — which serves Belvidere, Hyde Park, Johnson and Wolcott — is seen as one of Vermont’s more competitive House races, with one of the two seats being vacated by incumbent Wolcott Democrat Matt Hill.
During the Oct. 7 debate, organized by the News & Citizen, Spence questioned Donnally on the number of out-of-state donors to her campaign, saying half of her money came from outside Vermont. That’s not too far off the mark — of the roughly $6,800 in contributions of more than $100, about 43 percent came from out of state. The rest of Donnally’s haul comes from donors who are afforded anonymity because they contributed less than $100.
Spence noted this week that Donnally said during their debate that she was “recruited” to run, and Spence wondered if she was being paid by the Democratic political apparatus.
“There are some questions of whether she’s going to be a vote for the district or just another in Chittenden County,” Spence said.
Spence himself received a $1,000 donation from the Vermont Republican party, part of the $8,400 he raised through September.
Donnally touted the number of small donations she received in order to raise $11,400 before October, most of them under $100 — of the 114 donations Donnally received through last month, only 18 of them were over $100.
“Every single person who has contributed to my campaign, in state or out, is someone that I have a direct personal relationship with. They are either a friend, friend of the family, or family member,” Donnally said in an email this week. I believe it reflects broad support and excitement for my candidacy.”
Even as Spence was grilling Donnally on her donations, commenters on the debate’s live Facebook video were pillorying Spence for accepting a $1,000 donation from Tom and Carol Breuer, conservative donors who have promoted anti-LGBTQ legislation in Massachusetts. The couple also own a home in Stowe.
It’s difficult to pin down just how much the Breuers have donated to various candidates this year, since they disclose those donations under different guises, variously under each of their names, both of them, or part of a trust. Sometimes, the address listed is a post office box in Stowe, and other times it’s a street address. Sometimes, multiple iterations of a Winchester, Mass., address are used. And sometimes, different characters, such as commas, spaces or periods differentiate the addresses.
Spence said he knows Tom Breuer personally from when they both were at the conservative-leaning Ethan Allen Institute — Spence worked there in outreach and development. He said Breuer knows Spence isn’t anti-LGBTQ, so that $1,000 isn’t going to sway his opinions on equality based on sexual identity or preference.
“I think throughout my campaign I’ve been very clear to who I’ve talked to that I’m kind of a different kind of Republican,” Spence said. “I’m really not afraid of bucking the party line.”
Donnally, who is gay and married with kids, thanked those who have spoken up for LGBTQ issues and helped “build and safe and inclusive community.”
“There have been a few moments over the course of this campaign season that have been painful for LGBTQ residents, including a candidate in Morrisville choosing to use ‘Take Back Vermont’ in their campaign promotion. What has moved me is the immediate community response that has followed in the wake of these choices,” Donnally wrote. “There has been quick and clear public push-back from community members, advocating for the safety and well-being of LGBTQ community members.”
The “Take Back Vermont” slogan was used by opponents of Vermont’s civil union legislation 20 years ago, and appropriated this year in a social media post by Morristown Republican House-seeker Shannara Johnson.
Johnson defended her intentional use of the slogan, saying she intended it to mean taking Vermont back from the Democrat and Progressive supermajority.
“While I don't agree with the original cause with that same title, there was no other phrase that felt more appropriate to express what we need to do,” Johnson posted on social media Sept. 18.
When asked about the irony of accusing Donnally of being influenced by money, Spence said he’s “not 100 percent perfect, but nowhere close to half my funding is coming from out of state.” Of the $8,400 he raised through September, he spent $6,000.
Rounding out the campaign finance picture in Lamoille-2, newcomer Richard Bailey, R-Hyde Park, has fully self-funded his campaign, loaning it $2,500 and spending $1,865. Ahead of September, most of his spending was on lawn signs. Last month, he and Spence went in on a mailing that was sent out to nearly 2,500 homes.
The lone incumbent, Dan Noyes, D-Wolcott, has been quiet on the fundraising front, as he has in previous elections. He’s only spent $500 so far, about a third of what he’s raised.
In the Lamoille-3 district — which serves Cambridge and Waterville — Cambridge Republican challenger Ferron Wambold also accepted $1,000 from the Breuers, a quarter of the $4,000 she received through September.
Wambold said Wednesday she researched the Breuers before cashing the check, worried it might seem “skeezy” if she took it. She ultimately decided, since the Breuers had donated to a moderate like Gov. Phil Scott, they knew their money didn’t have any anti-gay strings attached.
“If they did their research into me, they would have learned I’m socially liberal,” she said. “I am all for standing up for people’s rights.”
Wambold’s opponent, incumbent Waterville Democrat Lucy Rogers, hasn’t raised nearly as much as she did in her first campaign two years ago. At this time in 2018, Rogers had brought in almost $11,500. So far this year, she’s received $785 from donors. She has said she would not actively fundraise during the legislative session. Instead, she has dipped into the cash she had left over from her first campaign, allowing her to spend about $2,700 without raising much.
As was the case in 2018, the most money came in the county’s wealthiest town. Stowe’s Jo Sabel Courtney, the Democrat trying to unseat incumbent Republican Heidi Scheuermann, had raised almost $17,000 through September.
Scheuermann is keeping pace with $14,755, despite having a long legislation session extend through late September. She also has about $9,000 in the bank from previous campaigns.
Scheuermann has spent as much as she’s brought in this year, while Courtney had only spent about a quarter of her contributions as of Oct. 1.
In the two-seat Lamoille-Washington race, incumbent Rep. Dave Yacovone, D-Morristown, had more than twice as much money available as any of his three opponents — he’s raised $7,370 and had about $2,000 left over from previous campaigns.
Incumbent Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, had raised $3,921 through September, while newcomer Shannara Johnson, R-Morristown, banked $3,346.
Morristown Republican Tyler Machia, also challenging for a seat in his first election, raised $1,080 through September, and spent about half of it.