When a gunman opened fire last week on a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, he reignited two of America's most combustible political issues: abortion and guns.
Here in Vermont, some 2,000 miles away, those issues play differently than in much of the country: All four candidates seeking to succeed Gov. Peter Shumlin favor abortion rights — and both the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial fields are divided on new gun laws.
While many national Republicans spent the summer urging the federal government and the states to defund Planned Parenthood, Vermont's top GOP officeholder toured Planned Parenthood of Northern New England's Burlington Health Center on St. Paul Street.
"We just sat down and talked about what they do, how they help and the essential services they provide," recalls Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. "I don't think we should be spending our time defunding Planned Parenthood. They do really good work for a lot of people in need."
Like all three of his opponents, Scott says he's outraged by the Colorado Springs massacre, which killed three and injured nine. He refers to it as "an act of some sort of domestic terrorism committed by someone with severe mental health issues." But Scott says it and other recent mass shootings, from South Carolina to Vermont, have not changed his views about his home state's gun laws, which are frequently described as the most permissive in the nation.
"No, I still support the Second Amendment, and I don't believe we need to change our gun laws in Vermont," the Berlin Republican says. "But I do think that we need to continue to identify and try to help those with severe mental health issues."
Sharing that view is a Democratic rival: former senator Matt Dunne.
"I think there is a gun-violence problem in our country and there is a violence problem in our country," the Hartland resident says. "But if you look at some of the specific laws that have been proposed, they wouldn't have actually prevented this particular likely act of terrorism from happening."
For that reason, Dunne says, he opposes extending mandatory criminal background checks to those who purchase firearms at gun shows or through private sales — and he opposes banning semiautomatic weapons or high-capacity ammunition.
"I'm focused on things that will actually address the issues we're confronting today," he says.
To Dunne, that means "standing up for programs like Planned Parenthood" and "pushing back on people who assert that this kind of action might be OK." Such people were among the more than 100 who commented on a Facebook post he wrote Saturday morning expressing solidarity with Planned Parenthood. Dunne says he was "quite disturbed" that some of the commenters "suggested that these shootings were justified."
Dunne's opposition to new gun laws is in keeping with some prominent Vermont Democrats, such as Shumlin. But it diverges from the positions currently held by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — not to mention public opinion.
The Castleton Polling Institute has consistently found that Vermonters support closing the so-called gun show loophole. Last February, a poll it conducted for VTDigger.org found that 77 percent of Vermonters and a whopping 93 percent of Democrats favor universal background checks.
Dunne's Democratic rival, former transportation secretary Sue Minter, sides with the masses.
"I believe we need to address gun violence prevention, and we need to do what we can to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous felons," the Waterbury resident says. "And, for me, that includes closing the loophole for background checks."
While Minter emphasizes that she "respect[s] the Second Amendment," she says she was "very shaken" by the August shooting deaths of three family members in Berlin and a state social worker in Barre, all allegedly perpetrated by the same woman.
Clear as she is about background checks, Minter declined three times to say whether she supports banning automatic weapons or high-capacity ammunition.
Minter is joined in her support for new gun laws by an unexpected ally: retired Wall Street banker Bruce Lisman, who has mostly staked out positions to the right of Scott's in his bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Lisman argues that anyone buying a gun should undergo a background check in order to keep firearms out of the hands of "those who have been adjudicated mentally unbalanced or unfit" and "those who are not allowed to fly."
The Shelburne Republican says he'd prefer the federal government take the lead on such legislation, but he would not oppose a state effort to close the loophole.
"There's nothing wrong with a healthy, informed debate about the issue, which has not taken place at the state or national level," Lisman says.
Seems like that's about to change.
Speaking Sunday at the New Hampshire Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Manchester, Sen. Sanders pledged to "pull off one of the greatest political upsets in the history of our country."
But can he, really?
Since mid-October, when Vice President Joe Biden announced he wouldn't join the presidential race and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton outperformed expectations at a Las Vegas debate and a high-stakes congressional hearing, Sanders' momentum has seemed to slow.
In most national polls, he's struggled to get within 25 percentage points of Clinton. In New Hampshire, where Sanders led in August and September, Clinton has evened things out. And in Iowa, Clinton has maintained a steady lead.
Meanwhile, Clinton has continued to lock up establishment endorsements — and corresponding superdelegate votes: On Sunday and Monday, she held three events in three cities to trumpet support from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, seven New Hampshire mayors and 13 of the 14 Democratic women serving in the U.S. Senate.* (Elizabeth Warren, the progressive darling from Massachusetts, was the lone holdout.)
After adopting several Sanders positions on trade and energy policy, Clinton appears to be pivoting back to the center with an eye to the general election. Speaking Sunday in Boston, she again criticized Sanders' single-payer health care plan — not exactly a way to appeal to the base — saying, "I'm the only Democratic candidate in this race who will pledge to raise your incomes, not your taxes."
But lest you think the race is over, University of New Hampshire political scientist Andrew Smith says: Hold on!
"Two months is a lifetime in a primary," the UNH Survey Center director says. "Speaking as a pollster, polls don't mean much. Frankly, voters aren't paying any attention to the race yet, and they won't be until the last few weeks."
According to historical exit polls, 35 to 45 percent of New Hampshire voters make up their minds in the last three days of a campaign, Smith notes, while 15 to 20 percent do so on Election Day itself.
That's a good thing for Sanders, says Ben Tulchin, the candidate's pollster.
"Hillary's been in the public eye for 25 years," he says. "Here's a guy who's trying to play catch-up, and he's doing remarkably well."
Former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathy Sullivan expects her state's February 9 primary to be a close one. But the longtime Clinton supporter thinks her candidate has the edge, in part because her campaign is being run by some of the best operatives in the state.
"They have a plan," she says. "They stick to the plan and just carry it through."
But Sanders supporter Burt Cohen, a former state senator from New Castle, thinks Clinton suffers from an "enthusiasm gap." (Smith calls her an "eat- your-vegetables candidate.")
"People trust Bernie," Cohen says. "They know he's for real."
A recent Quinnipiac University Poll of Iowa, which holds its caucuses February 1, shows a similar dynamic in the Hawkeye State. Asked who is "honest and trustworthy," cares about their "needs and problems" and shares their values, more Iowa Democrats said Sanders than Clinton. But she's leading him among likely caucus-goers, 51 to 41 percent.
"I think what drives a lot of this is that Secretary Clinton is viewed as the more likely candidate to actually win the presidency than is Sen. Sanders," explains Quinnipiac assistant director Peter Brown.
Among the biggest threats facing Sanders is one his own campaign created: public expectations it may struggle to meet.
Early last month, his New Hampshire state director, Julia Barnes, told Bloomberg that hers was a "must-win" state for Sanders. The next week, campaign manager Jeff Weaver reinforced the sentiment, telling Seven Days, "I think New Hampshire is pretty much a must-win, but I think if you come very close in Iowa, I think that's as good as a win."
A week after that, senior strategist Tad Devine tried to walk those comments back and better manage expectations.
"Obviously we have to do very, very well, beginning in Iowa and New Hampshire," he told Seven Days. "I don't think we have to win any single state to win the nomination of the Democratic Party."
Devine warned that it was dangerous to buy in to such an argument, because the Clinton campaign would only "keep moving the goalposts on this down the field" — in Nevada, then South Carolina and so on.
Soon thereafter, Weaver appeared to be back on message.
"The truth is, campaigns are a long haul — and we're in it for the long haul," he said. "There is no make or break."
While gubernatorial candidate Minter is generating headlines, her family members are more likely to be writing them.
Minter's husband, David Goodman, is a well-known freelance journalist whose subject matter ranges from progressive politics to backcountry skiing. Her sister-in-law, Amy Goodman, has hosted the nationally syndicated radio and television show "Democracy Now!" for nearly two decades. Even her 15-year-old son, Jasper Goodman, has served as a sports commentator on WDEV Radio since he was 10. He regularly appears on WCAX-TV and pens a column for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
So who's the best source for the inside scoop on the press?
"Definitely my son," Minter says.
Not that she needs it. According to her husband, "Sue really is very experienced in dealing with the media. It's always been a really important part of her job."
David Goodman says he doesn't have "any formal role" in Minter's campaign, though he concedes that the topic occasionally comes up at dinner.
"Our family has always enjoyed talking politics, so it isn't any different than that," he says. "We're all engaged and interested."
Unlike many journalists, Goodman receives his paycheck from an advocacy group that lobbies state lawmakers: Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. The left-leaning organization finances Goodman's weekly WDEV radio show, "The Vermont Conversation," paying the host and the station, and it rounds up other sponsorships, according to VBSR lobbyist Daniel Barlow.
While Barlow says VBSR "occasionally suggest[s] topics," Goodman has full editorial control over the show, which often includes state policymakers but rarely focuses on electoral politics. Goodman notes that he led a "hard-hitting" conversation about last year's FairPoint Communications strike, even though the company was underwriting the show at the time.
Goodman says he doesn't think his work conflicts with Minter's, "since I am not involved in VBSR lobbying and the show is editorially independent from them." But he says he would likely reevaluate the situation if his wife wins the race.
"If I'm elected governor, I think a lot will change in terms of the work my husband's able to do as a journalist," she says.
Correction, December 2, 2015: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the proportion of U.S. senators endorsing Clinton.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Gun Shy"
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