Voters in Vermont pride themselves on the positive tone in even their most bitterly fought elections. But the governor’s race is bucking that trend this year thanks to out-of-state political juggernauts that are transforming the typically low-key contest into a record-breaking brawl.
“It’s not our way,” said Tom Aloisi, a 51-year-old Vermont native, who said voters are used to seeing such antics in neighboring New Hampshire, a battleground state that attracts all presidential contenders.
This year, normally quiet Vermont has had more than twice as much spent on TV advertising for the governor’s race between Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Democrat Sue Minter than it had for the entire election cycles in 2012 and 2014. Much of that is driven by the Republican Governors Association and its Democratic counterpart, who are operating under the innocuous names A Stronger Vermont and Our Vermont, respectively, to tear down their opponents with TV ads.
The dynamic in tiny Vermont echoes what’s occurring around the nation, where tight gubernatorial races and outside groups are fueling increased spending on state political ads.
This year, as states elect 12 governors, fill scores of other offices and several thousand legislative seats, television ad spending on state races has outpaced the last comparable election at this point, even when adjusted for inflation. The more than $148 million spent so far this year dwarfs the $83 million spent in the same period in 2012, according to data from media tracker Kantar Media/CMAG.
The heated governors’ races account for more than half of all state political advertising this year. And independent groups are playing a larger role, sponsoring 23 percent of all ads in 2016, compared with 18 percent in 2012.
The Center for Public Integrity analyzed data about political advertising on broadcast television from Kantar Media/CMAG, a media tracking firm that monitors 211 media markets around the country and offers a widely accepted estimate of the money spent to air each spot.
These figures cover ads aired between Jan. 1, 2015, and Oct. 3, 2016, yet represent only part of the money spent on political races. They do not include ads for radio, online, direct mail or TV ads that aired on local cable systems. The estimates also do not include the cost of making the ads.
In Vermont, this means that voters have already seen an estimated $3.2 million worth of political television ads about the governor’s race alone. That works out to more than $6.60 already spent for each of the roughly 480,000 eligible voters in the New England state, which elects a governor every two years.
“It’s a great time to own a TV station,” said Eric Davis, an emeritus political science professor at Middlebury College. “This is going to be by far the most spending we’ve seen in a governor’s race in Vermont.”
Competition at the top
Seven of the 12 gubernatorial races this year are open races with no incumbent candidates, and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has classified five of those as toss-ups: Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia. That’s in contrast to 2012, when the center classified only three states as a toss-up at this point.
“The map is more competitive this time,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the center.
That’s certainly the case in Missouri where Democrats are trying to maintain control of the governor’s mansion, currently occupied by Gov. Jay Nixon. The Show Me state has seen more political advertising this year than anywhere else in the country, an estimated $43 million. The governor’s race alone, at $27 million, is higher than the total spent in any other state for all statewide and legislative political ads this year.
Those eye-popping totals are fueled by Missouri’s campaign finance laws: It is one of a dozen states with no contribution limits.
“It’s like the wild, wild west out here,” said Jeremy Walling, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University.
Former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens emerged from a crowded Republican primary field by painting himself as a political outsider and defender of the Second Amendment. He’s raised more than $13 million so far in 2016, according to state records, and has already spent an estimated $8 million on political ads, more than any other candidate for state office in the country.
His opponent in the November election is current Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat who used to be a Republican. Koster has raised more than $18.8 million so far and has already spent an estimated $6 million on television ads, despite not facing a serious challenge in the primary.
In North Carolina, the race has also been expensive, as Democrats try to win back the governor’s seat from first-term Republican Pat McCrory.
He and Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, the current attorney general, have spent more than $12 million combined on political ads, nearly all of it in the past two months. Earlier in the race, independent groups mainly backing Cooper dominated the airwaves.
Bigger role for outsiders
That dynamic of outside groups joining the fight has played out in West Virginia’s attorney general race, in which ads from Democratic challenger Doug Reynolds duel for airtime with those from independent groups backing Republican incumbent Patrick Morrisey.
A political committee called Mountaineers are Always Free has spent more than an estimated $1.5 million on ads, many attacking Reynolds. Like the governors’ associations using local-sounding names, the group is funded entirely by the national Republican Attorneys General Association, which seeks to elect Republicans to the top law enforcement position in each state.
Reynolds, the president of an energy pipeline company who has already pumped more than $600,000 of his own money into the campaign, has sponsored $1.8 million worth of ads so far, outspending and airing more ads than the independent group. But he anticipates that it will be a challenge to keep pace now that Morrisey’s campaign has just started to air its own ads.
“It’ll be two on one,” Reynolds said.
The Democratic Governors Association and its Republican counterpart are typically the largest national drivers of spending in state races, and that’s no different this year.
The groups can accept unlimited donations and annually count numerous pharmaceutical companies, insurers and major corporations among their top donors. The biggest contributors to the Republican group this year also include Koch Industries Inc. and hedge fund managers Paul Singer and Ken Griffin, while labor groups are among other top donors to the Democratic group.
Because the groups are regulated by the IRS and don’t typically file state-specific reports, it’s difficult to tie donations the groups receive to ads in specific states.
“You can never tell from the outside whether in conversations from donors this money is being earmarked or directed,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a Stetson University associate professor of law who has studied the activities of the two groups.
And sometimes they don’t include their national names in their campaigns, instead using state-specific ones that obscure their national and partisan ties, such as in Vermont. In total, the associations and the groups that they’ve backed have spent more than $8 million already just on TV ads.
Typically, they don’t enter races until after the primaries, so that total is likely to soar in the coming weeks.
Ads paid for by independent groups don’t merely amplify the message of candidates, they often are far more negative — attacking one candidate, while allowing the candidate they support to use their precious campaign funds for ads that are more positive.
That’s certainly the case in Vermont, where A Stronger Vermont ad uses bobblehead dolls of Minter and Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin to attack Minter’s candidacy as a continuation of Shumlin’s “failed” policies. A recent Our Vermont ad likens Republican candidate Scott to a box of cereal that’s unhealthy when you examine the ingredients.
Meanwhile, ads aired by Minter, the Democratic candidate, have focused on painting her in a positive light, focusing heavily on her work leading the state’s recovery from Hurricane Irene in 2011. And Scott’s ads have touted the race-car driver’s ability to work with both parties.
That’s by design, said Davis, the Middlebury political scientist.
“What’s going on in the gubernatorial race,” he said, “is the old good cop, bad cop routine.”
This story was co-published with TIME.
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