Vermont's Most Powerful Offices Are Up For Grabs This Election. So Why Is It So Slow? | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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Vermont’s Most Powerful Offices Are Up For Grabs This Election. So Why Is It So Slow? 

click to enlarge From left: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Gov. Phil Scott - MARC NADEL
  • Marc Nadel
  • From left: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Gov. Phil Scott

Across America, 2018 is shaping up to be a remarkable election year. Energized by their opposition to President Donald Trump, Democrats are hoping a "blue wave" will sweep the nation and help them capture the U.S. House. An unusual number of governorships are up for grabs, and control of the closely divided U.S. Senate is also in play.

In Vermont, though, this campaign season is remarkable for how sleepy it is.

"It's an election year again?" joked former governor Jim Douglas when a reporter called his office at Middlebury College.

"It's like crickets out there in terms of the public knowing what's going on," said Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden).

On paper, plenty of public positions are up for grabs. With the exception of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), every statewide officeholder is up for reelection this fall, along with every legislator, prosecutor, sheriff and high bailiff.

But public opinion polls, fundraising figures and the sparse number of early ballots requested by voters suggest that Vermonters are paying little attention. And that's good news for the state's highest-profile incumbents — Republican Gov. Phil Scott, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) — all of whom face weak opposition in the August 14 primary.

A poll commissioned by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS found that three of the four Democrats running for governor were unknown to more than 70 percent of those surveyed in early July, a month before the primary. When pollsters asked about former utility executive Christine Hallquist, the highest-profile Democrat in the race, 59 percent said they hadn't heard of her.

According to the Secretary of State's Office, 10,716 people had requested absentee ballots as of Monday — eight days before the election. At the same point in the 2016 primary campaign, as voters prepared to choose a replacement for outgoing Democratic governor Peter Shumlin, 15,896 people had asked for ballots.

Douglas, a four-term Republican governor, said he's disappointed but not necessarily surprised that this year's election is so quiet.

"We have a U.S. senator who's, according to one report, the most popular in America among his or her constituents," he said, referring to a spring poll by online survey company Morning Consult that pegged Sanders' home-state approval at 63 percent. "I don't think most Vermonters feel that there's a strong contest there." The same is true of Welch, according to Douglas, who argued that the six-term member of Congress was "not likely to have a strong challenge."

The race for governor would seem to have room for excitement. A Morning Consult poll in July found that Scott's net approval rating — the percentage of voters who approve of his work minus the percentage who disapprove — fell from 43 percent in the first quarter of this year to 5 percent in the second quarter. The change came after Scott reversed himself and embraced gun control legislation in the spring, angering Second Amendment supporters.

Most voters, though, don't seem to be paying attention. In fact, Vermonters don't seem to be paying much of anything to politics. Contributions and spending in this year's race for governor are down 90 percent compared to the 2016 election, according to July 15 filings with the Secretary of State's Office.

By July 15 two years ago, gubernatorial candidates had spent nearly $1.5 million on TV and radio advertising alone. This year? Zero. (In the past two weeks, though, a political action committee funded by the Republican Governors Association has spent more than $216,000 on pro-Scott TV and social media ads.)

Scott's challengers may see opportunity in the Morning Consult data, but each of them is trying to accomplish something that hasn't been done since 1962: defeat an incumbent governor. That November, Democrat Phil Hoff unseated first-term Republican F. Ray Keyser.

It's not just governors who seem to have job security. Since 1913, when the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution put the state's voters directly in charge of choosing U.S. senators, only one Vermont senator has lost reelection, in 1930. In the same period, five Vermont senators have died in office.

The state's three-member congressional delegation has remained static since the late senator Jim Jeffords retired in 2006. Sanders, then a 16-year veteran of the U.S. House, was elected to succeed him, and Welch took over Vermont's sole House seat. Leahy, who took office in 1975, is the longest-serving of all 100 U.S. senators and the fifth longest-serving senator in the nation's history.

Upsets are slightly more common for Vermont's U.S. House seat. But when Sanders defeated incumbent Republican Peter Smith in 1990, it was the first time in 30 years that a member of Congress from Vermont lost reelection.

Elections are the defining feature of democracy, but this year's slow races raise the question: Do Vermonters get a real choice every two years, or are voters and politicians simply going through the motions until one of the state's top officeholders retires or dies?

Gun-Shy Dems

click to enlarge Democratic gubernatorial candidates debate at WCAX-TV - GLENN RUSEEL
  • Glenn Ruseel
  • Democratic gubernatorial candidates debate at WCAX-TV

As the list of failed gubernatorial challengers has lengthened over the last 56 years, Vermont's love of incumbents has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"The conventional wisdom in Vermont really keeps people from challenging incumbents, because they think they have a lock," said Burlington attorney Jake Perkinson, a former chair of the Vermont Democratic Party.

Those best positioned to win one statewide office are those who have already held another. But few established pols are willing to risk their current jobs for a long-shot bid at a better one.

"You can take a look at who chooses to run against incumbents," said Deb Markowitz, a former secretary of state and onetime gubernatorial candidate. She said challengers rarely have the same qualifications as candidates who run for vacant seats.

"So if there was an open seat for governor, an open seat for U.S. Senate, you would have very different résumés in those candidates," Markowitz said.

Candidates running for Scott's job this time around include a grocer, a 14-year-old, a dance festival organizer, an environmental lobbyist and the former CEO of a regional utility. None has ever served in state office.

While Vermont has its share of up-and-coming Democratic politicians — including Attorney General T.J. Donovan, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), Sen. Ashe, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, 2016 gubernatorial nominee Sue Minter and former House speaker Shap Smith — none of them chose to challenge Scott this year.

Doug Racine, a former lieutenant governor and state senator who twice ran for governor, said there's a reason top Democrats opted not to run.

"[Scott is] an incumbent ... a popular incumbent, so folks weren't really willing to take the risk," he said.

The result is less turnover in the state's top offices, and that means fewer chances for women to hold them. Vermont has elected only one female governor — Madeleine Kunin — and is the only state to have never sent a woman to Congress.

"If there's no change, there's no opportunities for new people to go," Markowitz said. "And in Vermont's case, it also means no opportunity for women to run and win."

With incumbents on the ballot, it can be hard for any challenger to prevail. The last time an ambitious Democrat took on an established officeholder was the 2012 primary for attorney general. Donovan, then Chittenden County state's attorney, ran against Bill Sorrell, a 15-year incumbent, and lost by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Donovan could afford the risk because he was halfway through a four-year term and didn't have to sacrifice his existing job. But unlike county prosecutors, all state offices in Vermont have two-year terms. According to Markowitz, that dynamic keeps most promising politicians from challenging incumbents.

"Because why would you leave a great legislative seat to run for governor in a year when it was so unlikely that you could win?" she asked. "Why would you leave a job in the private sector where you're earning a good living to run for a race that was going to be so difficult, if not impossible, to win?"

There are occasional exceptions. This year, Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton) is stepping down from his job as House minority leader to challenge Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat.

Alex MacLean, who ran Shumlin's successful campaigns for governor in 2010 and 2012, said most serious candidates take a careful look at their odds and tend to stay away from long-shot campaigns.

"It's 16-hour days, eight of which are on the phone dialing for dollars. It's not fun," MacLean said. "Running for statewide [office] is brutal. It's incredibly taxing. It's a lot of ego involved in it, and losing is difficult, and I think people are understandably fearful of that."

The Echo Chamber

Almost any discussion of this year's dull campaign season eventually arrives at a classic chicken-and-egg question: Does it seem boring because it's not getting news coverage? Or does it lack news coverage because it's boring?

"There's no drama to pay attention to," Perkinson said. "Bernie's running again, Welch is running again, all the down-ticket people are running again. And they're all well known."

Based on the state's electoral history, Perkinson's analysis is probably right on. But there was no apparent drama in 2014, either. That year, political newcomer Scott Milne challenged Shumlin, who was running for a third term. The Republican businessman was written off by much of the political establishment.

"Milne's campaign and message have improved in recent weeks, but he is unlikely to do much better than the low 40-percent range," retired Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis wrote in an analysis for the Addison County Independent days before the general election. Davis' only question was whether Shumlin would get more than 50 percent of the vote.

When Milne won 45.2 percent of the vote and came within 3,000 votes, or 1.3 percent, of beating Shumlin, the political establishment was shocked. Milne lost, but the election proved that the conventional wisdom at the time wasn't so wise after all.

"Milne came out of nowhere, and he wasn't the strongest Republican candidate that that party could have put up," Racine said.

The result left some insiders wondering: If Milne had been treated as a viable candidate all along, would he have won?

Milne said the media's focus on a few big-name politicians hurts candidates like him who don't have the typical résumé of a governor or U.S. senator. (Milne went on to challenge Leahy in 2016 — and lost 60 to 32 percent.)

"Established folks can all get three statewide stories a week on meaningless press releases," Milne said, noting that only Seven Days and VTDigger.org reported on his decision not to run for office in 2018.

"I think the media tends to both reflect the conventional wisdom and feed it at the same time," Racine said. "If ... some of the insiders who tend to set the tone of these sorts of discussions, if they're out there saying, 'Hey, you should really be paying attention to candidate X' and 'You're missing something,' I think the media would say, 'OK, there's something I'm missing here.' When nobody is saying that, I don't know what you really report on."

The Honeymoon Isn't Over

In every state but Vermont and New Hampshire, governors serve four years before facing the voters again. While that results in fewer elections, it also results in more competitive ones.

In Vermont, Perkinson said, candidates struggle to mount serious challenges to incumbents so quickly after they take office. "You need a pretty long runway to [set up a statewide campaign]," he said, "and two years is not a long runway."

While the two-year term may stifle competition early in a governor's tenure, it can serve a purpose later, according to Chris Graff, a former Vermont journalist who now works for National Life Group.

"We hang on to the two-year term because it gives us some flexibility when you hit the six-year mark," he said.

While they weren't booted from the job by voters, three Democratic governors in the past 50 years — Hoff, Kunin and Shumlin — opted to leave office after six years. All were in the activist mold and pushed hard for momentous changes in state law. "Governors, if [they] make the hard decisions, eventually do wear out [their] welcome," Graff said. It just doesn't happen quickly.

In general, Graff said, "our governors stay [in office] a little too long. Whether you're talking about governor Kunin or governor Shumlin, at the end they've lost a lot of their popularity."

Shumlin coasted to reelection in 2012 after drawing accolades for his response to Tropical Storm Irene. By 2014, his administration's difficulties launching the Vermont Health Connect insurance exchange nearly cost him reelection. And by 2016, when he retired from office, his abandonment of a single-payer health care plan had lost him his base.

In general, Markowitz said, two years is too short a period for many voters to turn against a governor.

"It requires the psychology of thinking that you made a mistake in that first vote," she said. "So for Phil Scott, there's a cohort that aren't going to vote for him again because they believe they made a mistake because of his [reversal] on guns. But the vast majority who voted for him, aside from that cohort, will have no reason to say, 'Hey, I made a mistake.'"

No Cheap Seats

Running for office is expensive. In Vermont's 2016 gubernatorial race, candidates spent more than $7.5 million.

The introduction of independent political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money has added a new dimension to political races. In 2016, these super PACs spent more than $5.4 million on the state's gubernatorial contest.

Kevin Ellis, a Montpelier lobbyist and former journalist, has an intimate view of the influence of money in politics. He's not thrilled with what he's seen.

"At the national level, it's beyond corruption. It's legalized criminality," he said. "When Peter Welch is in Washington, D.C., he leaves his office on Capitol Hill and goes to a special room that's not paid for with taxpayer dollars, and he has a list of rich people to call," Ellis said, adding that Welch tries to keep the calls to a short two to three minutes before closing with an ask: $1,000.

Vermont Gubernatorial Fundraising, 2016 vs. 2018

image/svg+xml0 200 400 600 Days until election 0 $1 MIL $2 MIL $3 MIL $4 MIL $5 MIL $6 MIL $7 MIL $8 MIL 2018 $480 K 2016 $4.8 M JULY 15
  • Chart: Andrea Suozzo / Source: Vermont Secretary of State

Those calls seem to work. From January 2017 through late July 2018, Welch raised $590,000, putting his campaign account over $2.1 million. Nearly 80 percent of the money came from PACs associated with corporations and other special interests. All but 12 of the 282 PAC donations during that period were for $1,000 or more.

"I don't know what Ellis is talking about," Welch said. "I don't know how he gets off on saying anything about how I do my fundraising."

Welch said he does spend "a couple of hours every week" raising money, but he didn't elaborate on the specifics of the operation.

"It's a combination of mail, phone call, email [and] other people doing events for you," he said.

Overstuffed war chests don't just scare off the competition. MacLean, the former Shumlin campaign manager, said political fundraising gets in the way of governing.

"With two-year terms, those folks who are in office spend a bulk of that time fundraising and thinking about their next campaign, and I do not think that's healthy," she said.

When incumbents are cash-rich, it can be difficult for other candidates to mount a serious challenge. Sanders, for example, was sitting on a $7.6 million campaign account at the end of June. In the governor's race, Scott began with an $18,000 head start from the 2016 campaign, then raised more than $200,000 before July 15. By that time, he had spent more than the $132,339 Hallquist had raised. None of the other candidates took in more than $60,000.

Ellis said that imbalance is exactly why the race for governor is boring this year.

"[The Democrats] are inexperienced candidates who can't get their message out in part because they have no money to get it out," Ellis said. "We need to publicly fund elections to stop the corruption of political fundraising and legalized bribery, so that challengers have money to mount a campaign."

Welch agreed.

"I've always supported public financing," he said. "That's the one way there's no question of intention by the donor."

Lefty Lockdown

The advantages of incumbency are not unique to Vermont, so why is it that incumbents in the Green Mountain State outlast their counterparts elsewhere?

In the 12 years since Welch took his seat in Congress, voters in New Hampshire's first congressional district have ousted their incumbent representative in four out of five elections.

Vermont's incumbents seem so safe this year that some local activists are focusing their efforts almost entirely out of state. Williston's Ruth Wallman, a retired chamber of commerce executive, is part of a loosely organized group of Vermont women volunteering to assist vulnerable Democrats in other states and to help flip Republican-held congressional districts.

"Maybe we're taking Vermont for granted," Wallman said, "but it feels like ... the reason to work hard is out of state, not in state, because we're so lucky to have the representative in Congress that we have. And [we're] presuming that Peter Welch is gonna get reelected. If he required helping, we'd be helping him, too."

Why are Vermonters electing the same pols again and again as other states so frequently vote for challengers?

Unlike New Hampshire and other swing states, Vermont is dominated by Democratic voters — so incumbent Dems often get a pass in general elections. The same happens with Republican incumbents in deep-red states such as Mississippi and Utah.

"In a purple state, every time a senator is up, it's very competitive," Markowitz said, pointing to North Dakota's junior senator as an example. "Heidi Heitkamp, she's in a purple state. She's got to fight every single time."

U.S. Congressional Turnover in Vermont and New Hampshire

since Sen. Patrick Leahy took office in 1975
  • Chart: Andrea Suozzo | Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office and U.S. House Office of the Historian

Adding to the challenge for Vermont Republicans is a dearth of well-known, qualified candidates running for statewide office. Unlike Democrats, the GOP doesn't have a pipeline of experienced politicians ambitious for higher office.

Democrats haven't always reigned supreme in Vermont, Markowitz noted. Until the 1960s, Republican politicians won virtually every election. Back then, party officials chose nominees instead of holding primaries.

"The party insiders would literally go into a smoke-filled room and decide who their candidates were," Markowitz said. "The consequence was that whoever was chosen in that smoke-filled room was then anointed governor, or lieutenant governor — all of the races."

While today's back rooms may be less smoky, Milne said he feels Vermont has returned to anointing rather than electing candidates.

"I imagine this is like it used to be for much of the '100 years of Republican rule,'" Milne wrote in an email to Seven Days. "This is a year without exciting primaries in a Vermont that is by and large ruled by one party."

What's the Fix?

Incumbents will always have an advantage, and there's nothing inherently harmful about electing the same politician more than once.

But almost everyone interviewed for this story agreed on one change that could make Vermont campaigns more interesting and improve the quality of state government: Hold fewer gubernatorial elections.

"I think a two-year term is incredibly wasteful, and the reality is that you can't govern in a two-year cycle," Markowitz said. "It really takes four years to take government in a new direction. And I think it's bad for government administration to have a governor who essentially has to always be campaigning, because they're always in a cycle for reelection."

Critics of Vermont's current system say the 48 other states that hold elections every four years are on to something.

"I think a four-year term for governor would really make the governor's race — every governor's race — quite significant," Ashe said. "It would actually empower every governor who is elected to be much bolder and more long-term in his or her thinking."

While the concept may have strong support in Montpelier, moving to four-year terms would require amending the state's constitution, and that's a difficult process. The legislature would have to vote twice for the change — with an election in between — and then a majority of voters would have to agree.

"It's not going to change. It's too difficult," Ellis said. "You don't have a champion. You've got to have a governor to appoint a commission. You've got to have a governor who takes this on."

Ellis isn't guessing that it'd be a hard change to make. It's a historical fact. According to state records, there have been 19 attempts to extend term lengths since 1880. In 1974, the legislature approved four-year terms, but voters defeated the change at the polls.

Recent governors have been understandably slow to pitch an idea so transparently self-serving. MacLean suggested that the likely path to four-year terms, if one existed, would involve advocacy by an outgoing governor who didn't stand to benefit from the policy change.

Ashe, for one, is ready to try again. He said if he is reelected he plans to formally propose a constitutional amendment that would give the governor a four-year term.

Extending the governor's term wouldn't spice up congressional races at all, but a federal system to publicly finance elections might. Some states and countries give candidates money to spread their messages to voters, but Ellis said he doesn't think the U.S. would adopt such a system.

"We fundamentally don't believe in that here, and as a result we have a corrupt system that forces these candidates to sit in a room and call rich people for money at least a third of their time, and that is wrong," Ellis said. "These candidates need to be out there campaigning and telling us what they stand for ... Instead, they're calling rich people for money."

Whatever the fix is, it won't change this year's elections. The candidates are still working hard to spread their messages and inspire voters to go to the polls on August 14. Minter, who lost to Scott in 2016, said she isn't convinced there's anything wrong with the way elections are working in Vermont.

She recalled answering an inquiry from a Seven Days reporter after one of the many candidate forums during the 2016 campaign. "It was packed ... packed to the rafters," she said of the forum. Afterwards, "I got this call, and he said, 'How come nobody's paying attention to the election?' and I thought, Whoa, come on out."

Minter said that while the campaign season may seem sleepy to outsiders, candidates are spending each day meeting voters and hearing about issues of importance to the state. Though she lost the election in 2016, she said that kind of campaigning left a lasting impression.

"It was the thing that restored, renewed, created my ongoing faith in Vermont's democracy," Minter said.

Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.

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