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Election Analysis: Don't Play with Fire 

Published November 3, 2010 at 7:46 p.m.

If there is any takeaway from Tuesday's elections in Vermont it's this: Don't play with fire.

The governor's race was always Republican Brian Dubie's to lose. Why? He was essentially running as the incumbent — a well-liked lieutenant governor who was the heir apparent to a popular chief executive, Gov. Jim Douglas. In recent polls, Douglas maintains approval ratings in the high 50s, which is rather remarkable given he's been in office almost eight years and has done battle with a very Democratically-controlled Legislature.

In any event, it was his to lose and he did, though not by much.

Shumlin ran an aggressive, smart ground game that, coupled with a strong Democratic get-out-the-vote effort, easily beat back the Dubie campaign's 100,000 door knocks and 11,000-plus Facebook friends.

Chalk that up to homegrown campaign manager Alex MacLean (more on her later).

It also certainly helped Shumlin that the Progressives sat the race out entirely, leaving the Left with a few scant independents to support. And, in the waning days two of those candidates dropped out and backed Shumlin. Every percentage counted in the governor's race, and another five to 10 percent would easily have thrown the race to Dubie.

A quick look at the places where Dubie lost speak volumes. Dubie lost the New North End of Burlington, a conservative-leaning area of Burlington that elects more Republicans than Democrats to its City Council seats (three out of four) and two Democrats to one Republican in the state legislature.

Why did he lose there? After the votes were tallied, Republicans said it was because Dubie ran too many weeks of those fear-mongering "meth dealer" ads on television and doubled-down on ads criticizing Shumlin's character.

That negativity hurt Dubie more than it did Shumlin, who punched back with a crass "Pinocchio" ad. As I've noted before, that's simply because going into this election more people had a negative view of Shumlin as a slick politician than they did of Dubie. Dubie's claim to fame was being Vermont's nice-guy politician. Not anymore.

Shumlin ran an aggressive campaign with some hard-hitting issue ads — but that's different than going after an opponent's character the way Dubie did.

Another key item in play was Dubie's loss of the Professional Firefighters of Vermont as an ally during the crucial get-out-the-vote drive in the last two weeks of campaigning. Dubie's assualts against the Vermont Troopers Association and its union president Det. Sgt. Michael O'Neil didn't sit well with the firefighters — and they let Dubie know it.

By the time Dubie toned down the attacks, it was too late. The firefighters decided to throw the full weight of their efforts into legislative races, including the contest for Secretary of State, where  Democrat Jim Condos was in a tough race against Republican Jason Gibbs. They put up radio ads for Condos and worked the phones and helped with visibility.

Meanwhile, all of those "Firefighters for Dubie" campaign signs semed to largely disappear from the landscape in the waning weeks of the campaign. And none showed up on Dubie's "Final Approach" tour or at his final campaign rally Monday night.

The firefighters were a key difference in Condos' win, and I can only imagine that had they put half that kind of effort into Dubie's campaign that he may be going by "governor elect" today.

Another key difference — both in Condos' win and Dubie's loss — was Democratic turnout in Chittenden County. That was evident in Shumlin's victories, or strong showing, in the county suburbs. That turnout also meant that Republican Charlie Smith was frozen out of the Chittendnen County Senate, a seat many observers (including myself) widely anticipated.

I had thought Smith and Democrat Sally Fox would win the two open seats and that Philip Baruth might be on the bubble (as in seventh place). Instead, Baruth and Fox won out and it was former two-time Democratic Mayoral candidate Andy Montroll who ended up in seventh.

I chalk up that Chittenden Democratic turnout, and Condos' continued name recognition in the county where he served as a senator, to be factors I underestimated when I predicted last week that Gibbs would edge out Condos. It wasn't even close.

That strong Democratic turnout blunted any gains in GOP turnout during a midterm election. While turnout wasn't historic, it was about average in most places, and better than average in others.

As noted above, Dubie lost some of his independent and conservative Democrat allies with his negative tone — more so than I had anticipated. Couple that vote supression with a strong Democratic turnout and you get a Shumlin victory, though it was close.

"We definitely underpeformed in areas where we should have either won, or won with bigger margins," said Bliss, who talked briefly with reporters after Dubie's concession speech.

Part of that underperfmance may have been due to the fact that Democrats were on defense in some key legislative districts in GOP-leaning areas in Bennington, Rutland and Franklin counties. Legislative Democrats in typically GOP districts in Rutland City fended off challenges — barely — but that extra work likely helped bring more Dems out to vote — the kind of Democrats that vote a party line and are less likely to shop around in some of the downticket races.

Overall, the GOP and the Democrats picked off a few of each others' incumbents, but in the end the numbers remain the same — the GOP with 48, the Democrats with 94. There are also five Progressives and three independents.

Two of those Democratic wins were by small margins — Sarah Buxton (D) defeated David Ainsworth (R) by two votes. A recount is likely. In Rutland City Gale Courcelle won by a single vote. Progressive Susan Hatch-Davis won her district by a handful of votes, which may also necessitate a recount.

This Democratic tidal wave analysis falls apart when you look at the big wins by Republicans Phil Scott and Tom Salmon; Scott for lieutenant governor and Salmon for auditor. Neither of their races were ever predicted to be close. Releasing the video of Salmon's DUI stop last year did more harm to his opponent, Doug Hoffer, than it did Salmon. If anything, it made Salmon more likeable and human.

Scott ran a humble campaign. He didn't make big promises or policy pronouncements, but offered voters a sense that he can be hands-on when necessary, but he wasn't going to use the office for anything more that its constitutional design.

Both Scott and Salmon, however, benefit from strong name recognition. Scott practically ran a general-election campaign during his primary against Mark Snelling, and Salmon is the son of a former governor — Thomas P. Salmon. The elder Salmon, like his son, remains popular among some Democrats and Republicans.

Another key factor was money. In the closing weeks of the campaign the Republican Governors Association and the Republican National Committee didn't provide auxiliary support for the party and the Dubie campaign. Instead, the Democratic Governors Association, Democratic National Committee, along with Shumlin allies like Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Action Fund, and the Shumlin campaign itself went on all-out ad and media mailing blitz.

Finally, you can't talk about Shumlin's win without giving kudos to his longtime aide and campaign manager Alex MacLean. Born and raised in Vermont, she proved herself as a perfect complement to Shumlin's own natural political instincts — which are among the best of any politician in Vermont.

The "angry mob of partisan bloggers" over at Green Mountain Daily rightly praised her abilities and skills. Get used to hearing her name, because she'll be a campaign manager in major demand in the years to come.

MacLean will serve on Shumlin's transition team, which will be co-chaired by former Gov. Howard Dean and Liz Bankowski, a former exec with Ben & Jerry's and chief of staff to Madeleine Kunin.

The challenges facing Shumlin are huge, especially given the bold progressive promises of universal pre-k, single-payer healthcare and closing down Vermont Yankee. Now he'll have to deliver.

The situation is similar to what Pres. Barack Obama faced after winning election in 2008. There are some high hopes in leftist circles, but as we saw in the recent midterm elections, voters can be fickle and fierce if they don't get their way. Or, if they don't like the reality when the compare it with campaign rhetoric.

Unlike Obama, however, Shumlin doesn't get a midterm election. In two years, he'll be on the ballot — not his party or his programs.

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Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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