In its closing days, the Republican gubernatorial campaign has turned into a game of Crying Foul, in which accuracy takes a back seat to volume.
The latest round kicked off Friday evening, when Bruce Lisman’s campaign issued a press release crying foul over an alleged push poll aiming to convince Lisman supporters to abandon their man — and telling those who stuck with him “don’t forget to vote on August 23rd.”
The primary is, of course, August 9th. Team Lisman essentially accused Phil Scott of being behind the push poll, and called on him to denounce the apparent dirty trick.
Team Phil Scott responded by, yep, crying foul over what it called negative campaigning by a desperate opponent. And Scott’s chosen VTGOP chair, David Sunderland, waded in with an even louder cry of his own. He called on Lisman…
… to prove or withdraw an accusation that rival Phil Scott was behind a series of phone calls attempting to deceive voters.
His intervention might prove embarrassing should Lisman win the primary. Probably won’t happen, but the picture of Sunderland and Lisman shaking hands would be worth a thousand words.
So here’s what I think.
I think the push polls are real. I don’t think Phil Scott is behind them, or had anything to do with them. I suspect an outside Super PAC or some other agency unrelated to Scott. Lisman’s attempts to tie the push poll directly to Scott are very close to the line; but he’s right in saying that Scott ought to denounce the push poll instead of denying its existence and trashing Lisman.
I believe the push poll is real because, first, it’s a highly specific accusation. The Lisman campaign quotes two voters, one of whom is a Republican county chair, as having received the calls. Their accounts are virtually identical. There is no reason to doubt them.
This specific attempted fraud features prominently in the conservative Bag O’ Dirty Tricks. You might remember the notorious push poll that killed John McCain’s chance of winning the key South Carolina primary in 2000. As for the fake Election Day, communities with high minority populations have often been targeted by flyers and phone calls reminding people to vote on the wrong day — often, the day after the election. “August 23rd” is a subtle refinement, setting the date on a Tuesday in late August, which was the usual Vermont primary day in recent years.
Anyway, it’s happened often enough to be plausible.
Outside conservative groups have been making inroads into Vermont Republican politics. And although Phil Scott isn’t exactly an ideological match, he’s the only Republican with a good shot at winning the governorship. A Scott victory would be a feather in their cap. And I’m sure they see him as pliable on policy, a lump of clay for them to mold.
Does Phil Scott know about the push polling? I doubt it. I may not respect his rhetorical skills or capacity for leadership, but he is a genuinely good guy.
Still, he ought to take the accusation seriously instead of simply whining about Lisman’s attack. He ought to accept the testimony of
Lamoille Orleans County GOP Chair Chet Greenwood, if no one else. At minimum, he could say “If the push poll is happening, it’s wrong, it should stop immediately.” And the ever-present clincher, “It’s not The Vermont Way.”
Of course, good guy or not, he’s got a primary to win, so he’s not giving an inch of ground to his opponent.
For his part, Sunderland was more outraged over Lisman’s attack than the apparent push polling. I’d suggest he’s got his priorities backward, but I suspect he’s secretly pleased to see that the big-money outsiders are targeting Vermont. The last thing he’d want to do is tell them to butt out.
After all, his own party barely has two dimes to rub together. Outside money, even if it’s covered in slime, would be more than welcome. Not to mention that his own party isn’t too pure to engage in grossly exaggerated attacks. Why, wasn’t it just a few days ago that they were claiming that a carbon tax would add $236 to the cost of a Burlington/Bennington round trip?
Throughout this campaign, Lisman’s attacks have contained a kernel of truth wrapped in swaths of exaggeration. In this case, he’s got the goods. Not on Scott directly, of course. But if Phil Scott is as good a guy as everyone thinks he is, he should stop complaining and publicly distance himself from the push poll.