Whiter the Progressive Party? I don’t know; there isn’t a clear path forward, and obstacles litter the landscape. They’ve gained strength in the legislature, mainly by running candidates on the P/D or D/P tickets; but they’ve just about reached the limits of that tactic, and may have hit a glass ceiling.
The Progs are anxious to make a splash in 2016, having sat out the last three gubernatorial elections in order to give Peter Shumlin a better shot at creating a single-payer health care system, hahaha. His abandonment of that goal, barely a month after his third re-election victory, plus the Dems’ habit of triangulating to the center on a host of issues, has left the Progs in a bitter mood. They’re itchin’ for a fight, and would especially like to field a credible candidate for governor.
That’s looking increasingly unrealistic. For starters, nobody seems to want to run.
This is an unintended side-effect of the Prog/Dem strategy, which has put several Progs in positions of legislative influence. Examples: Tim Ashe chairs the Senate Finance Committee; Anthony Pollina has a bully pulpit in the Senate; organic farmer David Zuckerman is vice chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee; and Chris Pearson is vice chair of the House Health Care Committee. One could argue that the Progs have been granted more influence than their sheer numbers would warrant. Or, in the words of Lyndon Johnson, the Democrats saw it’s better to have the Progs inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.
And indeed, it’d be hard to give up that level of influence to make a long-odds, short-funded bid for higher office.
Compounding the difficulty is that any high-profile Progressive would likely depend on public financing. That was a difficult enough pursuit in previous years (just ask Dean Corren or John Bauer). Now, it seems to have become completely untenable.
First of all, in order to seek public financing, a candidate cannot declare or campaign in any way before mid-February. Until this year, that was a reasonable start date. This time, with multiple candidates already on the trail, it’s a full half-year too late.
Even worse, the financial limits would be punishing for a late starter. Gubernatorial candidates can’t use more than $600,000 (combining direct gifts and state funds), and candidates for lieutenant governor max out at $200,000. In past years, that would have been a decent warchest. This time, the fields for governor and lieutenant governor are full of hopefuls with solid fundraising records and connections, plus at least a couple of affluent self-funders. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor each spend $2 million or more.
Which means we need some serious reform of the public financing law. But that won’t happen in time for 2016, so any Progressive prominent enough to mount a credible campaign will almost certainly be smart enough to stay out of the battle. During the spring and summer, I kept hearing rumors that Auditor Doug Hoffer would run for governor. I couldn’t bring myself to believe it; he’s so well-suited to his current job, and he’d have little chance of winning the corner office.
But that didn’t happen. If a Prog does try to move up, the most likely scenario is a Zuckerman run for Lite-Gov. He’d presumably seek public financing, and he’d probably try to win the Progressive nomination and the Democratic primary. Well, his odds just got longer with Democratic State Rep. Kesha Ram’s decision to seek the Senate gavel.
Ram will be a formidable contestant for the Chittenden County vote, which would hurt Zuckerman in a Dem primary. She’s young, but has substantial connections; according to Paul Heintz, her campaign launch was attended by “former governor Madeleine Kunin, two gubernatorial candidates and many of her fellow House Democrats.”
Gee, Paul, you’ve got me on tenterhooks. Which gubernatorial candidates?
(I’m guessing Shap Smith and Sue Minter. Although her platform bears some resemblance to Matt Dunne’s.)
I’m not saying that Ram’s candidacy is aimed at blocking Zuckerman, but it certainly works out that way. (And if you want to go double-agent-level, Ram and Zuckerman could split the liberal/Chittenden vote and clear the way for — ugh — John Campbell, a Windsor County moderate.)
But let’s get out of the deep weeds and move on.
The Progressives back-burnered their ambitions to give Shumlin a chance to enact single-payer. Now that’s gone and Shumlin’s going, but they find themselves facing multi-candidate fields with the prospect of record amounts of money in play.
And one other thing. Their Prog/Dem tactic has yielded significant benefits: they’ve got the Auditor’s office, they’ve elected several notable lawmakers, and they’ve kept their official ballot status by running Prog/Dem candidates for llieutenant governor in 2012 and 2014. But at what cost to their brand?
What does it mean to be a Progressive, when almost every prominent Prog is labeled a Prog/Dem or Dem/Prog? That dual-ballot identity reinforces the perception that Progressives are, basically, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. And if that’s how voters see the Progressive Party, a lot of them will decide it’s better to fight for liberal values from within the Democratic Party than to howl into the whirlwind as a Progressive.
Heck, I’m an observer of Vermont politics, and I can’t tell you what the Progs stand for. (Beyond, I suppose, single payer health care.) I’m sure my Prog friends and acquaintances will be quick to supply me with answers. But I follow this stuff more closely than the vast majority of voters, and if I don’t know, then the Progressives have a serious image problem on their hands — created in large part by pursuing Democratic nominations.
A tactic which, again I emphasize, has paid major dividends. But the Progs may have painted themselves into a corner, and I don’t see where they go from here.