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Lessons Learned

Fair Game


Published August 29, 2012 at 4:49 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

UPDATE: Bill Sorrell narrowly defeated T.J. Donovan in the Democratic primary for attorney general. Check out our new politics blog, Off Message, for results from that and other big primary races.

Our deadline came and went before the results of Tuesday’s primary were clear. So you already know what we don’t: namely, who won the spicy Democratic primary for attorney general.

Did incumbent AG Bill Sorrell keep his job? Or did Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan depose him? Regardless of who won the day, here are seven lessons we’ve learned since Donovan announced his unusual, intra-party challenge:

Incumbents Beware: Used to be the only threat to an incumbent holding statewide office in Vermont was the occasional challenge from another party. But after years of phoning it in politically and alienating Democratic heavies — from labor unions to state committee members — Sorrell found few party allies willing to help him ward off up-and-comer Donovan. The lesson here? Be a team player — or find yourself without a team.

Super PACs Are Here: The question of whether super PACs — independent expenditure committees that can raise and spend unlimited funds on elections — will play a role in Vermont is no longer academic. By tossing more than $184,000 into television ads and mailers, the pro-Sorrell Committee for Justice and Fairness spent as much as either of the candidates themselves. Though pocket change for a national super PAC, the group’s investment was a game changer in Vermont’s AG race: It put one candidate on air, while the other remained mute. Consider the floodgates opened.

Donovan’s a Player: Winner or loser, Donovan proved he’s got the appetite and aptitude to run a tough, smart, effective campaign. In his first statewide outing, Donovan managed to beat Vermont’s longest-serving constitutional officer at fundraising, earned media, organization and endorsements. His one failing? In the closing two weeks of the race, the sleep-deprived candidate appeared angry and unhinged at a couple debates — and his campaign forgot the difference between drawing a contrast and going negative. Regardless of the primary’s outcome, expect to see this 38-year-old political scion running for higher office in the not-too-distant future.

Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks: For much of the race, it was evident that in his 15 years as attorney general, Sorrell had never before waged a serious campaign. Sorrell was slow to recognize the threat Donovan posed and struggled at first to articulate why voters should give him another two years. But somewhere along the line, the AG flipped a switch — appearing newly self-confident and, oddly, like he was having a good time. Fighting on the home turf of his 15-year record, Sorrell turned in solid debate performances — that few people probably saw — and closed the campaign like a pro. Maybe the dude should go into politics!

Vermont Has an Elected Attorney General: Who knew Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna would become the state’s go-to election-season pundit and debate moderator? Or that “Name all the divisions of the attorney general’s office” would be such a riveting debate question? Like a five-month civics lesson, the Sorrell-Donovan primary opened up the inner workings of the attorney general’s office and brought to the fore a host of legal and law-enforcement issues — from consumer-protection litigation to recidivism to, well, soda taxes.

Ho-Ho’s Still Kicking Around: With apologies to Joe Biden, Sorrell’s campaign boiled down, at times, to a noun, a verb and the name “Howard Dean.” Not only did the former governor serve as Sorrell’s highest-profile supporter, attack dog and all around best bro, he starred in the state’s first super-PAC ad. Ho-Ho clearly drew the ire of Donovan, who intimated that Dean illegally coordinated the super PAC’s efforts with Sorrell’s campaign — without offering evidence to prove it. Guess Howard touched a nerve!

McMullen’s Got Ammunition: Even if Sorrell and Donovan kiss and make up at Wednesday’s obligatory “unity rally,” you can bet that plenty of the loser’s supporters will be loath to rally around the Democratic flag this November. More problematic for Dems: By waging a knockdown, drag-out fight, Sorrell and Donovan provided a blueprint for Republican AG candidate Jack McMullen to follow in the coming months. If the wealthy retired businessman opts to self-fund, he could finance a raft of attack ads featuring the words of the loser aimed squarely at the Democratic nominee.

Truce and Consequences

A funny thing’s happening in the state to our south. As the Boston Globe recently reported, super PACs and other interest groups have dropped a cool $90 million in 16 states featuring competitive senate races — but nary a dime has gone to Massachusetts.

Why? Because Republican Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren signed an unprecedented pledge in January to discourage outside intrusion in Bay State ad wars. The terms of their truce are simple: If an outside group spends money on a candidate’s behalf (say $100,000), that candidate’s campaign has to donate half that amount ($50,000) to a charity of the other candidate’s choosing.

Against all odds, the pledge has held — so far.

Could the same thing happen in Vermont? Now that an out-of-state super PAC has arrived on our shores, are the state’s two gubernatorial candidates looking to limit outside spending in their race? Fat chance!

That’s because Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and his Republican challenger, state Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) have something in common: Both talk a big game about limiting the role of money in politics, but neither is willing to lead by example. Not only have both candidates pooh-poohed the idea of a Massachusetts-style truce, both have refused to state unequivocally that they don’t want super PACs supporting their candidacies.

Brock says he “leans toward transparency and full disclosure” in campaign fundraising and would support a constitutional amendment limiting political contributions by corporations — “if drawn properly and thoroughly.” But the Franklin County legislator was one of just three senators in April to vote down a resolution calling for such an amendment, because, he says, “it was so ineptly drawn that it had all kinds of unintended consequences.”

As for telling outside groups to stay out of Dodge, Brock says no way.

“I’m not going to tie my hands behind my back. That’s suicidal,” he says. “Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t matter what I say, because I can’t have any control over what they do.”

Furthermore, Brock argues, diverting campaign cash to charities — as the Massachusetts pledge calls for — is “grossly improper,” because it does not respect the intent of the donor.

Surely Shumlin, a staunch opponent of Citizens United, would tell super PACs he doesn’t want them to spend gobs of corporate money on his behalf, right?

“The problem for candidates is that that’s against the law,” Shumlin said at a press conference two weeks ago, arguing that because super PACs and candidates are barred from coordinating activities, he can’t even preemptively say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Could you not send a general message, though: ‘Just FYI, I don’t want super-PAC money?’” Burlington Free Press reporter Terri Hallenbeck queried at the Pavilion presser.

“I don’t believe a super PAC would listen to you,” Shumlin countered.

Asked by VPR’s Bob Kinzel whether he’d consider a Massachusetts-style truce, Shumlin expressed skepticism that it would work and said, “All I can tell you is that I wish that Citizens United didn’t exist. I wish that we were back in the days where if campaign spending happens, it’s controlled by the campaign.”

“Why not issue that statement?” Hallenbeck countered. “OK, maybe they won’t listen, but you will have made a statement to the world about super PACs.”

“I thought I just did,” Shumlin said — even though he didn’t.

“That you don’t want their money?” Hallenbeck asked.

“I don’t have any control over their money, by law,” he clarified.

Wait, what?

It should come as no surprise that both candidates are playing it safe, so as not to alienate any potential sugar daddies. In 2010, the Democratic Governors Association spent a whopping $1.1 million on Shumlin’s behalf. The Republican Governors Association invested close to $750,000 supporting his unsuccessful opponent, former lieutenant governor Brian Dubie.

Whether either organization will get involved this time remains to be seen — and probably depends on Brock closing the 34 percent gap measured last week by the Castleton Polling Institute. Then again, with Shumlin in line to become the next DGA chairman — and only 11 states featuring gubernatorial contests this year — both outfits might find a reason to throw money into the race. After all, a hundred grand in ads will buy you more in Vermont than just about any other state in the nation.

DGA spokeswoman Kate Hansen says that while Shumlin is “one of the strongest Democratic incumbents heading into November,” the DGA “is fully committed to ensuring his reelection this year.” As for whether it’d honor a Massachusetts-style truce, Hansen says, “we wouldn’t support any measure that hinders our ability to [reelect Shumlin].”

As for the RGA? Spokesman Mike Schrimpf says, “We don’t publicly discuss or preview campaign strategy, so as not to tip our hands to our opponents.”

Whew! That’s even dodgier than the candidates themselves!

Media Notes

Can’t get enough Fair Game? Never fear. To coincide with the start of the general election, Seven Days is launching a new political blog today called Off Message.

As its name implies, Off Message will “go beyond press releases, talking points and campaign spin,” says Seven Days news editor Andy Bromage — who, full disclosure, is looming over my desk as I write this — to cover what really matters in Vermont government and politics.

If you want the scoop on the latest doings — or if you’re just too damn cheap to pay for a newspaper — be sure to drop by 7d.blogs.com/offmessage.