Gray and Balint campaigns go tit for tat on super PACs

Becca Balint in June 2021, left, and Molly Gray in May 2022. File photos by Mike Dougherty and Natalie Williams/VTDigger

Super PACs have yet to buy a single ad in the Vermont Democratic primary for US House, the headline race in this year’s historic election. But a campaign is nonetheless working hard to ensure black money is a priority for the electorate as early voting begins across the state.

After VTDigger and Seven Days published stories this month about Vermont Senate Pro Tempore Speaker Becca Balint, D-Windham, appearing to encourage super PACs to support her candidacy, her main rival, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray , wasted no time hammering Balint in a fundraising email to supporters.

“If our adversary is successful, black money will flood the airwaves and drown out the voices of Vermonters,” the email read. The missive also said Gray knew “firsthand how harmful Super PAC spending can be to Vermont’s election,” pointing to the $200,000 spent on ads by a national Republican group in 2020 that attacked Gray during his running for lieutenant governor.

Notably absent from Gray’s email was any mention that she, too, had benefited that year from super PAC spending. Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund, a local super PAC, spent tens of thousands of dollars in 2020 on TV ads attacking Gray’s GOP opponent Scott Milne.

In the world of campaign finance, there are two types of political action committees. Ordinary PACs can donate directly to campaigns, but only $5,000. So-called super PACs, or independent spending PACs, cannot communicate or strategize directly with campaigns, but are free to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates. Both Balint and Gray receive regular PAC money and both have said they will publicly speak out against super PAC advertising on their behalf in this race.

Gray’s congressional campaign may have reason to worry about outside spending. Balint has sought and received endorsements from several national LGBTQ+ organizations, as well as Guarding Against Pandemics, an advocacy organization funded by a cryptocurrency billionaire. None are technically a super PAC, but their mentions could cause affiliated super PACs to enter the race.

A poll, distributed by text message, is already circulating in Vermont asking voters if outside spending for Balint’s campaign by Equality PAC, an LGBTQ+ group or the House Progressive Caucus would help or hurt her. The Gray campaign immediately sent screenshots to the press in a “memorandum” last Wednesday intended to demonstrate that the super PACS had begun “initiating interference” in the race. A separate poll has since begun circulating on pandemic preparedness.

After no media picked up the story, the Gray campaign tried again last Thursday, issuing an open letter to Balint demanding that she drop endorsement of Protect Our Future, a super PAC that works to elect candidates. engaged in pandemic prevention. Gray’s team linked to an earlier story posted by Seven Days noting Protect Our Future’s endorsement. (This story strongly suggested Gray was being hypocritical in now decrying super PAC spending.) Camp Balint at the time said they were unaware of the group’s support.

“Protect Our Future is a Super PAC that has spent over $22 million interfering in primary elections across the United States. That includes $1 million to defeat a (Senator Bernie) Sanders-endorsed candidate, Nina Turner, in Ohio. Most recently, this Super PAC spent $11 million on a single congressional race in Oregon,” Gray wrote in his open letter.

“Today I ask you to publicly renounce that endorsement and state that you do not want them involved in the Vermont election. Although the disastrous Citizens United case made this possible, we can unite to say that billionaire-backed Super PACs have no place in Vermont,” she continued.

Natalie Silver, Balint’s campaign manager, responded that day, telling reporters that Gray had also sought endorsement from Guarding Against Pandemics. The group is a separate legal entity from Protect Our Future, but they share a mission – pandemic prevention – and a family connection.

Gabe Bankman-Fried is the executive director of Guarding Against Pandemics. His brother, Sam Bankman-Fried, a billionaire who made his money in cryptocurrency, funds Protect Our Future.

In a written statement, Samantha Sheehan, acknowledged that Gray “attended a meeting with two representatives of Guarding Against Pandemics at their invitation.” Sheehan then claimed that when the campaign “learned of their association with Protect our Future, the Lieutenant Governor chose not to communicate with them any further.”

Dan Pereira, spokesperson for Guarding Against Pandemics, declined to say whether the organization had received any indications that it had been snubbed.

“I can tell you that we chose to endorse Senator Balint, that Guarding Against Pandemics chose to endorse Senator Balint because we believe she is a champion of our issues,” he said on Friday. .

On Sunday, Balint’s campaign manager released his candidate’s response to Gray’s letter to the press. Balint did not specifically reject Protect Our Future’s support, but said the campaign “does not invite or welcome money from any super PACs.”

Balint went on to write that “in recent press articles,” Guarding Against Pandemics had been “confused with a super PAC.”

“It’s not. It is common knowledge that your campaign also met with Guarding Against Pandemics and sought their endorsement. Is this something you will say publicly?” Balint asked, noting that US Representative Peter Welch, D-Vt., had also been endorsed by Protect Our Future.(Welch is stepping down from his House seat to run for the U.S. Senate.)

“I believe you share my admiration for Congressman Welch as a person of integrity and morality,” she wrote. “Did you send him a letter?”

Balint then accused Gray of “intentionally (misrepresenting)” the American Crystal Sugar PAC, which donated to the Gray campaign, during a debate on Vermont Public Radio on June 9.

“He is the number one contributor to the GOP congressmen who deliberately encouraged and supported the January 6 insurrection,” Balint wrote. “Do you want to return the donation of the American Crystal Sugar PAC and denounce their support for the Republicans who sided with Donald Trump and challenged the validity of the 2016 presidential election?”

Gray’s opponents have previously targeted her support of the Big Sugar PAC, and she has always responded in the same way: noting that the group represents a cooperative of sugar beet growers, and that she would be a champion of agriculture. Gray’s camp also noted that every member of the Vermont delegation had taken money from the group in previous election cycles.

In response to Balint’s letter, Sheehan wrote a lengthy email to VTDigger, in which she argued that the senator had made “a number of unsubstantiated allegations.” Surprisingly, she went so far as to dispute that it was “public knowledge” that Gray had met Guarding Against Pandemics – although she confirmed that fact days before.

“Has the Balint campaign shared the source of this information? Sheehan wrote. “If it was the Gray campaign and Guarding Against Pandemics representatives at the meeting, where did the Balint campaign get the information? How is it common knowledge? »

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About Charles D. Goolsby

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