MONTPELIER — Outside spending in the gubernatorial races is exploding as the campaigns churn toward the primary on Aug. 9, according to public filings.
Reid Hoffman, the Silicon Valley billionaire who co-founded LinkedIn, has ponied up $220,000 for radio, television and online ads supporting Matt Dunne. Hoffman filed a mass media report with the Secretary of State’s Office Wednesday as required by state election law.
According to the filing, first reported by Seven Days, Hoffman is spending $154,000 for television spots, $44,000 for radio spots and $22,000 for online advertising. The filing notes that Dunne is mentioned in the ads.
Hoffman, according to campaign finance disclosure reports filed by Dunne, has already provided significant contributions to Dunne’s campaign. Hoffman and his wife, Michelle Yee, have contributed the maximum amount allowed of $4,000 each.
The ads Hoffman plans to run supporting Dunne were purchased through and produced by the Washington, D.C.-based firm, Devine Mulvey Longabough, which did considerable work for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Tad Devine, a principal of the firm, served as Sanders’ chief strategist.
Dunne said in a statement Thursday he was unaware that Hoffman was planning to make a large ad buy on his behalf.
“This was a surprise to us just like everyone else. We didn’t know it was coming, but I’m not surprised that this is happening right after a super PAC formed by the biggest lobbying firm in Montpelier is putting significant money behind an ad that is dishonest about my commitment to clean energy,” Dunne said. “Reid spent his teenage years in Vermont, he’s a friend and he’s getting involved in the most transparent way possible, by putting his name on it.”
Hoffman did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.
The spending on behalf of Dunne comes on the heels of a political action committee reserving air time on behalf of one of Dunne’s primary opponents, Sue Minter, as Seven Days’ Paul Heintz reported Wednesday. The group, Vermonters for Strong Leadership, filed a mass media report with the Secretary of State’s office Thursday showing $120,000 in expenditures for television ads.
Bob Sherman, the now-retired co-founder of the Montpelier lobbying shop, KSE Partners, is serving as the president of the new super PAC backing Minter. He said the majority of its funding is coming from EMILY’s List, an organization that supports pro-choice women candidates, through its own political group, Women Vote! EMILY’s List has endorsed Minter and referred campaign manager Molly Ritner to Minter.
Sherman said he is not concerned that the outside spending would reflect badly on Minter, who along with her primary opponents, has called for an end to corporate contributions and big money in politics.
“Matt’s doing the same thing, so I’m not worried about Sue,” Sherman said. “These are the rules that govern our political system. As long as they are there they will be utilized.”
He said he chose to aid the PAC because Minter is “strong, she’s smart, she’s good for Vermont.” The group plans to air an ad that is “positive,” he said.
“When you see the ad you will see that this is an ad that is strictly a positive ad,” Sherman said. “It doesn’t mention the other guys. It doesn’t denigrate anyone.”
He said it was unclear if the PAC would remain active after the primary if Minter wins.
“You’ve gotta win the game that gets you into the playoffs before you worry about the playoffs,” he said.
Ritner said the Minter campaign is legally barred from communicating with the PAC. “We have not and will not communicate with this group,” she said.
Ritner suggested the super PAC supporting the Minter campaign was more palatable than the spending by Hoffman.
“While we’re most proud of the thousands of Vermonters behind this campaign we’d rather be supported by millions of American women fighting for a woman’s right to choose over a billionaire venture capitalist,” she said.
On the Republican side, American Future Fund Political Action, which was registered on Wednesday, is spending $9,000 on radio spots and $18,000 on television ads that mention Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, according to a mass media report filed Thursday. Chris Marsten, whose phone number is listed on the report, told the Vermont Press Bureau he was not authorized to speak on the record.
The group is the political arm of the American Future Fund, which claims on its websites that it “was formed to provide Americans with a conservative and free market viewpoint to have a mechanism to communicate and advocate on the issues that most interest and concern them.”
Filings with the Secretary of State’s office show that two former executives of defunct Wall Street firm Bear Stearns, Warren Spector and Robert Steinberg, are the only two contributors to the super PAC. Bear Stearns, where Scott’s primary opponent, Bruce Lisman, once worked, was sold to JP Morgan after the financial collapse in 2008.
Spector contributed $5,000, while Steinberg contributed $25,000. Records show that Steinberg and his wife, Suzanne Steinberg, also contributed to the maximum amount of $4,000 to Scott’s primary opponent, Bruce Lisman.
The Scott campaign said Thursday it believes the ads run by American Future Fund will be against Scott, not for him.
The outside spending became a major flash point during a debate on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition Thursday afternoon. A third Democratic candidate in the primary, Peter Galbraith, a former diplomat and Windham County state senator, asked Dunne if he would denounce Hoffman’s spending in the final days of the primary campaign. Dunne largely repeated the statement he shared with the Vermont Press Bureau.
Galbraith said he was not convinced that Dunne did not coordinate with Hoffman, which is prohibited by the law.
“I absolute think there was coordination there. This is absolutely skirting the law,” he said during the debate, adding that Hoffman could be interested in a contract to work on Vermont Health Connect, the state’s online health insurance marketplace.
Galbraith also asked Minter if she would denounce the super PAC working on her behalf, insisted she has a “free speech right” to call on them to stop.
“I am against super PACs. I think the role of big money in politics is undermining democracy in serious ways,” Minter said, but did not call for Sherman’s group to stop its spending. “There’s nothing I can do to coordinate with this.”
Galbraith, who contributed about $200,000 to his own campaign, said he does not want any group spending on his behalf.
“Do not do so. I will denounce you to the heavens if you try to do that in my campaign because it’s wrong, it’s not the Vermont way,” Galbraith said.
The outside spending is on top of what the campaigns are spending on their own behalf. Scott filed mass media reports showing $38,000 in expenditures for television and $10,000 for radio ads. On Wednesday and Thursday Scott filed reports showing spending of about $37,000 on post cards and $10,000 on robocalls in the waning days of the primary. Dunne filed reports on Wednesday and Thursday filed reports showing about $67,000 for postcards and $15,000 for media consulting. Minter filed a report Wednesday showing $51,500 for television ads and $15,000 for postcards.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:40 p.m. to include comments from Minter campaign manager Molly Ritner.