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In a rarity, a billionaire-backed super PAC enters race for Mass. lieutenant governor

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has a new super PAC backing her run for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A billionaire-backed super PAC is launching its first ad boosting Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll’s bid for lieutenant governor, casting her as a Democrat who will “keep delivering” for Massachusetts in a role with little constitutional power.

The 30-second spot began running Wednesday, according to organizers with the Leadership for Mass Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee.

A spokeswoman declined to disclose how much the PAC is spending. Super PACs only have to file a report with campaign finance regulators within seven days after making an expenditure over $250.

But the PAC is expected to spend significant sums to bolster Driscoll in her three-way primary with state Senator Eric Lesser and state Representative Tami Gouveia. The limited public records available show it booked at least $99,650 in air time on WCVB through Monday.

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Among the PAC’s top donors listed on the ad: billionaire Robert T. Hale Jr., chief executive of Quincy-based Granite Telecommunications and a prolific political donor; Working for Working Americans; Samuel Byrne; and Christopher Collins, the co-founder of the real estate investment company First Atlantic LLC. Rand Whitney, which is a nearly identical name as a packaging company owned by the Kraft Group, is also listed as a donor.

While telegraphed for weeks, the super PAC’s entrance into the Democratic primary is both unusual and potentially race-altering.

The down-ballot contest, usually an afterthought amid the slate of statewide contests, could turn on the candidates’ ability to reach voters on a wider scale. And while candidates themselves can only raise $1,000 from each person each year, super PACs are not bound by such limits. They can spend and raise unlimited sums, including taking donations from people and corporations.

Driscoll emerged from the state Democratic Party convention in June with the party’s endorsement, but she has also struggled to keep pace with Lesser in fundraising. Lesser, who had more than $1 million on hand at the end of July, also unveiled his first ad last month on digital platforms, and his campaign said it planned to run the spot on television.

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Gouveia’s campaign has lagged the other two in fundraising and last month received $143,994 in taxpayer funds through the state’s public financing system.

The super PAC’s ad touts Driscoll’s record in Salem, saying the fifth-term mayor brought “real change” to the North Shore city and “fixed schools, balanced budgets, [and] led on wind power.” Avangrid has said it plans to use Salem as a staging area for offshore wind turbine construction in the waters south of New England.

“Endorsed by Planned Parenthood and Democrats across Massachusetts, Driscoll will keep delivering for Mass.,” the narrator says.

The primary winner is expected to serve as the running mate to Attorney General Maura Healey, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor.

Formally, the role of lieutenant governor has very few responsibilities. Beyond chairing the Governor’s Council — the eight-person body that vets and votes on the governor’s judicial nominees — the lieutenant governor’s only other constitutional responsibility is becoming acting governor if the governor dies or leaves office.

Nevertheless, it hasn’t stopped major donors with histories of spreading money to both Republicans and Democrats from stepping into the race.

Collins, who is listed in an online biography as serving as the finance director for the Republican Governors Association’s Executive Roundtable, has given to the Republican National Committee and Senate Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Healey and Attorney General candidate Andrea Campbell.

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Hale, in recent months, has poured donations into both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars into a fund tied to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and another aligned with Representative Steve Scalise, the House Republican Whip, federal records show.

A spokeswoman for the PAC said it has also taken donations from several labor groups or their affiliated PACs, including IBEW Local 103, the BAC Political Education Fund, the Massachusetts Brick Layers People’s Committee, and the International Association of Sheetmetal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

Even before the super PAC’s ad dropped, its presence had roiled Driscoll’s opponents. Lesser and Gouveia sent a letter to state party leadership last month calling on it to denounce the PAC and for Driscoll to disavow its support, citing the donors’ support of national Republicans. Both also mentioned the potential of the PAC entering the race at the tail end of an hour-long debate on Tuesday.

Driscoll on Wednesday distanced herself from the PAC, saying her campaign is not allowed to coordinate or collaborate with it. “I’m really focused on my race,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re doing.”

She also pushed back at criticisms that a donor’s decision to support both Republicans and her is a mark against her.

“I think it’s really laughable,” she said. “I’ve got a 16-year track record as mayor, standing up for working families, for seniors, for immigrants, for LGBTQ neighbors and friends. I’m the endorsed candidate of the Massachusetts Democratic state party. . . . I’m really proud of the record I have and the race I’ve run.”

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Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.