Asked on the debate stage last week by Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, likely her closest contender in the Democratic primary for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House, if she would reject super PAC spending on her behalf — and would even go so far as to hold a press conference denouncing him — Senate Pro Tempore President Becca Balint did not hesitate.
“Yes,” was Balint’s one-word confident response.
“No further questions,” Gray replied, smiling broadly.
Federal campaign law places a cap on the amount that individual or corporate donors can donate to political candidates. But those rules don’t apply to independent spending-only commissions — better known as super PACs — which can raise and spend unlimited sums to defend or against candidates. There’s a catch: Campaigns aren’t allowed to coordinate with super PACs, which must act independently.
But the campaigns have found a deceptively simple workaround to the coordination ban: redboxing. “Little red boxes mocking campaign finance laws” was the title of a recent New York Times article detailing the practice.
It works like this: on their websites, campaigns will use certain commonly known signals and phrasing – a typical construct is “voters need to know” – to highlight a message and the key parts of the electorate they want this message reaches. When campaigns want to indirectly solicit TV ads, for example, they can write “voters must see”; if they think direct mail will work better, “voters need to read.”
The page will typically highlight the contrasts between their candidate and their opponents that the campaign wants to emphasize, and will include a B-roll and photo gallery available for download.
Often, but not always, not-so-oblique instructions will be surrounded by a red box.
A small red button appears at the bottom of the “Meet Becca” page on Balint’s website that says “Learn more about Becca”. It leads to a photo gallerythen, in all caps: “Primary voters need to hear that Becca is the candidate in this race who delivered and was a champion for rural Vermont on the issues that matter most.”
The page goes on to outline Balint’s major accomplishments during her time in the Vermont Senate — and is careful to highlight a part of her biography that sets her apart from Gray, though Balint’s main rival is never mentioned directly. Time and time again, the page reiterates that Balint “has the track record to prove” that she can get things done for Vermont. (Gray’s current role is largely ceremonial.)
VTDigger sent Balint’s website to the Campaign Legal Center, a national campaign finance reform nonprofit that has worked to raise awareness of redboxing tactics.
That’s what’s happening here, they said.
“This type of coordination between supposedly independent super PACs and outside groups exposes the inadequacy of our existing campaign finance rules, which allow these groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of candidates on the assumption that their campaign activities are truly independent of the candidates. they support,” Erin Chlopak, senior director of campaign finance at the Campaign Legal Center, said in a written statement.
Saul Shorr, a Democratic media strategist who has worked on state and national campaigns, reviewed Balint’s campaign website at the request of VTDigger. He too thought it seemed like a clear case of redboxing.
“It’s a bit of an abracadabra. The magic words are ‘Someone needs to hear, see, whatever.’ Because otherwise, why would you write it that way? You would just write ‘Here’s my candidate,'” said Shorr, who was a media consultant for Priorities USA, the pro-Obama Super PAC that helped the then-president defeat Mitt Romney and be re-elected in 2012.
(Shorr isn’t working on any of the Congressional campaigns this cycle. He said it’s possible he or his wife donated to Gray’s campaign, but didn’t recall it. It wasn’t listed. in his campaign finance materials with the Federal Election Commission through March 31.)
Balint’s campaign manager Natalie Silver noted that no super PACs have yet appeared on the racing scene. And she denied that the page was intended to communicate with such groups.
“The reason is to communicate to people who visit our website what our path to winning is, what Becca is, what her accomplishments are,” she said. Pressed by the specific wording used, Silver dismissed the question as a “grammatical criticism”.
“If you don’t like our writing – sorry,” she said.
Silver also took the opportunity to slam Gray for a $5,000 contribution she received from American Crystal Sugar, a sugar beet cooperative and one of largest corporate donors in washington. And she hinted that Gray hadn’t been given enough media scrutiny on the matter.
“Nobody followed that up with her,” she said. “So I think it deserves a lot of conversation.”
The co-op gives to Republicans and Democrats, but it has recently come under scrutiny for being one of the biggest donors to GOP politicians who voted against the certification of the presidential elections in 2020.
“If Becca had taken money from people who supported overturning the election, I would tell her to give it back and I think Molly Gray should do the same,” Silver said.
Samantha Sheehan, Gray’s campaign manager, accused Balint of “staggering” hypocrisy.
“Senator Balint stood on the debate stage and promised Vermonters she would reject Super PACs. Before the sun rose the next day, she took to her campaign website to invite them,” said she wrote in an email to VTDigger.
As for Silver’s jab at American Crystal Sugar, she replied that the Balint campaign pledged to “point fingers to cover up (their) own dishonesty.”
Sheehan also noted all members of the current Vermont Congressional delegation have received donations from the sugar cooperative at various times in their careers.
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