Daily Archives: November 4, 2014

Night of the Long Knives at the Free Press

Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. In fact, I’ve been expecting it for a couple years, since the Burlington Free Press’ news department made a subtle but obvious shift away from Montpelier and toward Chittenden County. But the timing is a shocker:

Before I go on with the thinky stuff, let’s first acknowledge that two people have lost their jobs. Terri Hallenbeck and Nancy Remsen are middle-aged people in a contracting industry that prizes youth. We don’t yet know whether they left on their own or were pushed out, but either way, I feel for them and wish them well. They provided a lot of valuable coverage, and their years of experience are irreplaceable. Well, everybody but Gannett thinks so.

The fact of their departure does not surprise me, but I thought their bosses would have the decency — or sheer expediency — to wait until after the elections were over. You know, have ’em cover election night, get ’em to write up the post-election stuff, and then toss ’em out on Thursday or Friday.

But no. Time, tide, and nervous corporations wait for no man.

On the other hand, maybe the timing was deliberate; it’ll get buried in the election news, and there’s less chance of other media outlets besieging Michael Townsend asking why he’s jettisoning all his experienced talent. And Townsend cravenly refusing to comment. Even though he expects other media outlets to respond to his reporters’ inquiries.

According to one of the other olds left on an ice floe, Tim Johnson, the Freeploid is moving away from the beat system:

“There’s not going to be a city hall beat. There’s not going to be a Statehouse beat. There’s not going to be an education beat.”

Instead, there will be two “teams,” Chittenden and Watchdog. Presumably they won’t have anyone staffing a Montpelier office; they’ll only cover state government when they (a) have a nice juicy story or (b) when there’s a single high-profile event. No more will Free Press reporters roam the halls, gathering tidbits, building relationships, and most importantly, understanding how the place functions.

And that’s important. The State House is a complicated machine; it takes time and attention to figure out what to follow, who to talk to, and where to go.

But the Freeploid and its corporate parent don’t care about that. They just care about having enough “content” to plausibly fill the paper every day. And their top priority isn’t “the public needs to know,” it’s “the public wants to know.” And since the public doesn’t really care that much for the push-and-pull of inside politics, Statehouse news will take a back seat to stuff like local sports and artisanal foods and a women chaining herself to a tree. Oh, and advertiser-friendly “content.”

Since I started actively blogging about three years ago, I’ve maintained a subscription to the Free Press because it frequently had important stories and fairly dependable coverage of state politics and policy. I’m not canceling yet, but I’ll be watching. And I won’t be surprised if, by the first of the year, the Burlington Free Press will have become irrelevant to what I do.

Well, before the polls actually close, here are my predictions

Conventional wisdom is that there’s an enthusiasm gap in Vermont in favor of the Republicans, and a low-turnout election will help them begin their comeback from a long dark night of the electoral soul.

There’s truth in that; but its impact will be blunted by (a) Governor Shumlin’s campaign machine and (b) the Democrats’ superior organization and database. They are devoting a whole lot of resources to selected legislative races, which will hamstring the Republicans’ efforts to gain ground.

So far, early (and scattered) reports indicate that turnout is somewhat better than expected, which should be good for the Democrats.

My caveat: I haven’t done a systematic study of past returns and trends, nor have I been traveling around the state sniffing the air and putting my ear to the ground. Just me in the metaphorical mom’s basement, sniffing the ground and putting my ear in the air.

In the race for Governor, the big question seems to be “Can Governor Shumlin get an actual majority or just a plurality?” But every time I give him something around (or below) 50%, I simply can’t imagine that many people voting for Scott Milne and Dan Feliciano. So in the end, I bump Shumlin up a little. My fearless forecast:

Shumlin 53, Milne 39, Feliciano 5, and 3% for “other.”

For Lieutenant Governor, Dean Corren’s energetic closing push will get him into the 40s, but that’s about all. The Democrats’ big drive won’t help him that much in a statewide contest because it’s so focused on key legislative races. Still, he’ll do better than Cass Gekas. Phil Scott 54, Corren 44, and 2% for “other.”

No need to forecast the races for Congress, Attorney General, Auditor, Secretary of State, or Treasurer. So, on to the Legislature.

In the state Senate, the Republicans will pick up no more than one seat, and things might remain exactly as they are now. In the absence of the Democratic organizational edge, I’d say the Repubs would win three seats or more. But I say the races in Washington and Orange Counties are not going to be as close as many think. Chittenden’s not changing. Which leaves the Repubs with two potential gains: one each in Franklin and Rutland.

(Flips coin.) Okay, a net gain of one seat for the Republicans. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dems hold serve.

In the House, I haven’t delved into specific races. But I do put a lot of stock in the Dems’ organization, and I think the Repubs will pick up no more than three seats. And as with the Senate, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dems hold serve.

If my predictions come to pass, it’ll be a positive for the Democrats — holding their ground in very tough circumstances. The Republicans will claim victory if they manage the most marginal of gains, and the media will report it as a split decision. But it’ll be a victory for the Democrats, and push the Republicans a little bit further from real competitiveness.

And if I’m wrong, I invite my Republican followers to join me here tomorrow as I tackle a hearty lunch of crow pie.

The self-bigotry of low expectations

This should be a very good day for Vermont Republicans in legislative races. It won’t be, of course, and therein lies the rub.

Earlier in the campaign, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott talked about picking up double-digit seats in the Legislature, putting a perceptible dent in the Dems’ substantial majorities. But now?

“I will be happy if we gain one seat,” [Senate Minority Leader Joe] Benning said. “It means that the Republican Party is moving in the right direction.”

“If we pick up one seat we’re moving in the right direction,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton.

Joe, Phil and Don, smiling through their tears.

Joe, Phil and Don, smiling through their tears.

Gee, ya think they’re reading from the same script?

The above quotes are from a story by Neal Goswami, published in the Sunday Mitchell Family Organ and produced as a (shorter) radio piece by VPR. (VPR’s website has the full text of Goswami’s print article, available without paywall.)

The Republicans are hoping for more than two seats. But they’re clearly trying to set the bar as low as possible so they can claim some sort of victory no matter what happens.

Which means that in their minds, it’s quite possible that the VTGOP will do no better than a token advance. And that’s bad news for the Republicans’ future in Vermont, for two big reasons. First, from Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth:

“Pickups, frankly, would be pretty tough,” Baruth said. “Last election we expanded pretty much to the limits of what we could reasonably hope for.”

So, if the Democrats are at the theoretical limits of their legislative hegemony, why can’t the Republicans make a significant comeback in 2014? Especially when this campaign represents “a perfect storm” of opportunity, according to Joe Benning himself.

The ingredients of that “perfect storm” include the continuing perils of Vermont Health Connect, fears about single-payer health care, widespread anger over rising property taxes, a sputtering economy, and early signs of Shumlin fatigue among voters.

On top of that, there’s no Presidential or U.S. Senate race to drive Democratic turnout; the races for Congress and Governor are uncompetitive; and Republicans have failed to mount credible races for the other four statewide offices. (Sorry, Shane-O-Mac.) Democratic voters have every excuse to sit this one out.

With all that going for them, the Republicans will be happy with a handful of gains. Leaving them, still, in a very weak minority position.

And that shows you how far away the VTGOP is from being truly competitive.  There are a whole lot of legislative seats that are simply uncompetitive. There are too many liberal and moderate voters who see nothing attractive in the Republican Party — even when they’re feeling dyspeptic about the Governor.

Plus, the Republicans are at a huge organizational disadvantage. The Dems have a well-organized, well-resourced ground game and world-class voter data. They were able to out-recruit the Republicans because of their organizational edge, so they have strong candidates in some vulnerable districts.

And they have poured their resources into the most competitive battlegrounds, like Rutland and Franklin Counties. Because the Republicans are uncompetitive in so many places, the Dems can, as the Governor would say, “focus like a laser” on the most crucial contests.

Which is why, even in a “perfect storm” of Republican opportunity, the Democrats are poised to hold onto virtually all of their vast legislative territory.

And that tells you all you need to know about the magnitude of the task facing Vermont Republicans.

Drivin’ down the highway, throwin’ money out the windows

That would appear to be Governor Shumlin’s campaign strategy in the final two weeks of the campaign. Faced with less-than-daunting opposition from the likes of Mr. Blandy and Mr. Fringey, not to mention Ms. Hempy, Hat Lady and The Beard, the Governor has been spending money like he’s running against a Koch brother.

The final pre-election campaign finance deadline was today, and Shumlin’s money machine was in overdrive, raising another $179,000* since mid-October and spending an incredible $342,000, more than half of it on TV advertising.

*Including $96,000 in cash, and $83,000 in “in-kind” donations. The latter were services performed by the state Democratic Party: robocalls and mailers. I guess his campaign was too strapped for cash to foot the bills himself, sheesh. 

That’s $342,000 spent in two and a half weeks. 

That brings his total spending on the campaign to $890,000, which is almost three times as much as he spent two years ago to defeat Randy Brock. Unless he’s really scared of Scott Milne, I’d say he’s going all out to boost his vote total. A finish under 50% would be embarrassing and make a serious dent in his political clout for his third term; anything less than 53% or so would be a significant deflation of his 2012 total, and weaken him going into the fight for single-payer health care.

Scott Milne, meanwhile, did well by his low standards, but mainly because he injected a bunch of his own money into his own campaign. He took in $91,000 since Oct. 15, but that includes a $50,000 loan to his campaign and $25K in “in-kind” contributions; the lion’s share of that was in the form of mass mailings done by the Vermont Republican State Committee on Milne’s behalf.

For the entire campaign, he’s raised $238,000. But that includes almost $90,000 from himself and his family. Plus another $20K or so from the famous Boieses.

He spent $98,000 since Oct. 15, mainly on TV ads, bringing his total spending for the campaign to $211,000. Which would be a nice total if he were running for Lieutenant Governor, but it’s simply not enough to be competitive, especially against Governor Moneybags.

Libertarian Dan Feliciano, meanwhile, limped to the finish line with a few thousand bucks in outside donations plus another $10,000 in self-funding. Most of his recent spending was on airing his awful TV ad. But again, Feliciano showed no sign of attracting broad support as expressed in campaign donations. He got damn little, in fact. In the marketplace of ideas, nobody was buying Dan the Libertarian Man.

In the race for Lieutenant Governor, incumbent Phil Scott eased back the pace. He raised less than $10,000 and spent about $10,000 since the last report. For the entire campaign, he’s raised $289,000 and spent $233,000.

The big news there is that Scott will head into the next campaign with a good-sized warchest by the standards of anyone other than Peter Shumlin, Pat Leahy, Peter Welch, and Bernie Sanders. He reports cash-on-hand totaling $98,000, which is a nice head start on 2016.

His opponent Dean Corren, as reported in this space, went on a spending binge in the last two weeks. He spent $92,000 since Oct. 15, including an intensive (by Lt. Gov. standards) TV ad campaign. And he planned out his expenditures intelligently; his campaign to date has spent $188,000, leaving only $12,000 left of his (mainly publicly financed) $200,000 kitty.

And now, ’tis the night before Election, and all through the state, not a candidate was stirring. Not even… hmm… does anybody’s name rhyme with “state”?