Gray, Balint campaigns tussle over super PACs, though none have entered the race

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 Vermont’s Democratic primary for U.S. House, the marquee race in this year’s historic election. But one campaign is nevertheless working hard to make sure dark money is top of mind for the electorate as early voting begins across the state.

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

“If our opponent has it her way, dark money will flood the airwaves and drown out the voices of Vermonters,” the email read. The missive also said that Gray knew “first-hand how harmful Super PAC spending can be in Vermont elections,” pointing to the $200,000 spent on ads by a national Republican group in 2020 in support of Gray's GOP opponent during her race for lieutenant governor.

Notably absent from Gray’s email was any mention that she, too, 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 television ads attacking Gray’s GOP opponent, Scott Milne. 

In the campaign finance world, there are two types of political action committees. Run-of-the-mill PACs can donate directly to campaigns — but only $5,000. So-called super PACs, or independent-expenditure PACs, cannot communicate or strategize with campaigns directly, but are free to raise and spend unlimited sums of money in support of or in opposition to candidates. Both Balint and Gray are taking regular PAC money and both have said they would publicly denounce super PACs advertising on their behalf in this race.

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

A poll, distributed by text, is already circulating in Vermont asking voters if outside spending on 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 super PACS had begun to “initiate interference” in the race. A separate poll has since started circulating about pandemic preparedness.

After no media picked up the story, the Gray campaign tried again last Thursday, releasing an open letter to Balint demanding that she renounce an endorsement from Protect Our Future, a super PAC that works to elect candidates committed to pandemic prevention. Gray’s team linked to a previous story published by Seven Days noting the Protect Our Future endorsement. (That story heavily suggested that Gray was being hypocritical in now decrying super PAC spending.) The Balint camp at the time said it hadn’t been aware of the group’s backing.

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

“Today I’m asking you to publicly renounce this endorsement and state that you do not want them involved in Vermont elections. While the disastrous Citizens United case made this possible, we can stand together in saying that billionaire-backed Super PACs have no place in Vermont,” she continued.

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

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

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

Dan Pereira, a spokesperson for Guarding Against Pandemics, declined to say whether the organization had received any indication 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 that she's a champion on our issues,” he said Friday.

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

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

“It is not. It is common knowledge that your campaign also met with Guarding Against Pandemics and sought their endorsement. Is this something you are going to say publicly?” Balint asked, noting that U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., had also been endorsed by Protect Our Future. (Welch is leaving 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 moral character,” she wrote. “Have you sent a letter to him?”

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

“This is the number one donor to GOP congresspeople who willfully encouraged and supported the insurrection on Jan. 6th,” Balint wrote. “Will you return the donation from American Crystal Sugar PAC and denounce their support of Republicans who sided with Donald Trump and challenged the validity of the 2016 Presidential Election?”

Gray’s opponents have previously taken aim at her support from the Big Sugar PAC, and she has always responded the same way: by noting that the group represents a cooperative of sugar beet farmers, and that she would be a champion for agriculture. Gray’s camp has also noted that every member of Vermont’s delegation has 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 claims.” Surprisingly, she went so far as to dispute that it was “common knowledge” that Gray had met with Guarding Against Pandemics — despite having confirmed that fact just days before.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of the ads a national Republican group ran during the 2020 lieutenant gubernatorial race.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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