@VTDems: The Odd Couple, and other observations

Mixed bag on the Democratic ticket: Sue Minter for governor, David Zuckerman for Lite-Guv. Not that there’s usually much coordination between the #1 and #2 candidates, but I expect little to none from this pairing.

Indeed, one question worth asking: Now that Zuckerman is the Democratic nominee, will the party share its voter database with him?

But let’s take a step back and ponder tonight’s results and what they mean for Democratic politics. In no particular order:

A good night for the mainstream Democratic Party. I say so despite Zuckerman’s win; he took a plurality of the vote, nowhere near a majority. If he’d been matched up with Shap Smith alone, he would have lost badly. (Yes, I’m assuming that the bulk of Kesha Ram’s votes would have gone to Shap.)

And, of course, Minter had little trouble outpacing Matt Dunne. Some of this was due to Dunne’s Six Days of Hell, but it’s impossible to know how much.

Bernie’s coattails proved surprisingly short. Dunne believed that turning himself into Bernie Lite was the key to victory. We know how that turned out, don’t we?

Truth is, as we can see from the Lite-Guv totals, much of the Democratic electorate is moderate to liberal, not progressive. Bernie’s popularity is partly a matter of policy, but more a matter of persona. Bernie is extremely popular. It’s yet to be proven that his policies alone are a winning formula in Vermont.

Matt Dunne blew it. Last fall, he seemed the clear favorite. Minter was untested and tied directly to the Shumlin administration. Dunne was the more experienced candidate. He raced out to an early fundraising advantage.

He should have won the primary.

Why didn’t he?

Well, part of it was the Six Days of Hell — his position shift on renewable energy siting, his restatement/retraction of said shift, the blatant hypocrisy of his stand against self-funded campaigns even after he self-funded his own, the scorched-earth tactics of blaming the media and “the establishment” for problems of his own making.

But even before that, I’d argue he blew the primary by deciding not to be himself. There’s a Matt Dunne who could have won this race. It’s the plausibly liberal technocrat with high-tech chops who would have brought managerial know-how and broad experience in government and the private sector. That’s a pretty appealing candidate, especially after the administrative misfires of the Shumlin years.

But he simply wasn’t plausible as Bernie II. He had too much of a track record. His policies were part Bernie, part moderate Dem. His personality was a poor fit. And, to the extent that Bernie and the Vermont Democratic Party have a touchy relationship, his embrace of Berniedom did nothing for his own standing with party regulars.

His late-days mistakes only reinforced his reputation in many minds as an overly ambitious pol willing to say anything to become governor. He is now a three-time loser who burned quite a few bridges; a political comeback is possible but seems unlikely. He might have to be satisfied with being a well-paid Google executive. Such a burden.

Sue Minter has a lot of work to do. She’ll have to unify the party, which should be easier since Matt Dunne prioritized party unity in his concession speech. But she will be the underdog against Phil Scott. She spent heavily to fend off Dunne. She’s got some political seasoning in the primary, but now she’s in the spotlight. It’s a big step up for someone who hasn’t run a general election campaign outside of Waterbury.

I’m sure I will have some thoughts on possible strategy for Minter and the Democrats, but all in due time.

The VTGOP will use Zuckerman to attack Democrats. Actually, that’s not a prediction; it’s already begun.


Zuckerman’s nomination increases the chances that Randy Brock will be our next Lieutenant Governor. Zuckerman’s still the favorite, but he’ll be a weaker general-election candidate than Shap Smith would have been.

And the stakes are high in that race. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, sits on the influential Committee on Committees, and casts tie-breaking votes. Brock would be a strong conservative presence; On the other hand…

If Zuckerman does win, we could have a very different Senate. Zuckerman as presiding officer, potentially Tim Ashe as President Pro Tem, and Chris Pearson a very capable lawmaker. Although Zuckerman has been in the Senate for a while, I can’t see him supporting the status quo. He’d have very little patience for the niceties and obscure mores of the Senate.

And whither the omnipresent Dick Mazza? The perennial kingmaker will have to adapt to — or try to conquer — a changed landscape. Will he continue to serve on the influential Committee on Committees? How would he get along with Zuckerman and Ashe as the other two members?

I know one thing. I’m voting for Zuckerman, if only for the entertainment value.

No sign of the Energy Rebellion much touted by the likes of Annette Smith and Mark Whitworth. Peter Galbraith is pulling less than 10 percent of the vote. One might presume that some of Matt Dunne’s 37 percent was due to his last-days revision of his renewables siting policy, but that seems a stretch. Smith and Galbraith loudly denounced Dunne after he re-explained his revision. It’s unlikely that their core supporters would have stuck with Dunne.

Whither Shap? I have no idea, but I’d be shocked if this was the end of his political career. He entered the Lite-Guv race very late, and he was hampered by Kesha Ram’s presence in the race. She’d garnered quite a few endorsements from the House Dem caucus, and many of them stuck with her.

Shap’s young enough to regroup and restart. He remains very popular in Democratic circles. He is highly respected for his shepherding of the House caucus. I doubt he’ll be tagged as a loser; he finished a strong second after a late entry, and he’ll get a lot of credit for that.

If Phil Scott wins the governorship, Shap ’s the early favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2018 — or maybe he’d wait until 2020, a presidential year.

The question will be, what role does he play in the near future? I don’t know, and I doubt that he knows right now. If Minter wins, he could probably have his pick of cabinet posts. Otherwise, he could run silent, run deep: continue to build relationships across the state and prepare for his next political venture.

I think that’s about enough for primary night. I’l turn to the Republicans next.


10 thoughts on “@VTDems: The Odd Couple, and other observations

  1. David Ellenbogen

    Sorry John, but I think it’s a mistake to think that a large majority of Ram’s votes would have gone to Smith. I haven’t seen the numbers yet, but I suspect strongly that the vast majority of her Chittenden County votes would have gone to Zuckerman. And that’s nearly a third of the state.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      You may be right, but there are quite a few Chittenden County Democrats who’d be, shall we say, highly reluctant to back a Progressive. But hey, I guess we’ll never know.

      I’m not, by the way, trying to question the legitimacy of Zuckerman’s victory. He won fair and square. I’m only questioning whether there’s a small-p progressive majority in the Democratic electorate. That remains unproven.

      1. Dave Van Deusen

        John, Ram got about 12,000 votes. About 12% of her votes came from the city of Burlington (Zuckerman’s traditional base). Zuckerman won by about 4000 votes. So Shap would have had to capture 67% of Ram’s votes to overtake Zuckerman in a theoretical 1 on 1 race. That projection seems very very unlikley. I grant that Shap would have got a majority of Ram’s votes, maybe even 60% of them. But no way in hell does he get 67% of them. Point being Zuckerman whupped the postershild of the VT Democratic Party establishment (but with the help of the AFL-CIO, VSEA, Sierra Club, his Progressive Party, etc.), and he is the odds on heavy favorite to now win in the general election for LT Gov. And he did this without the help of the VT Democratic Party (no list access, etc). That, in my opinion, is THE takeway from the primary.

    2. Faith King

      I agree. After listening to the candidates debate on VPR the other day (best part was when they questioned each other) Smith really stood out as a Moderate Republican with a D by his name. It’s crystal clear that the guy’s priorities lie with the more well-heeled Vermonters and NO public policy goal – however laudable – will outweigh Smith’s commitment to keep taxes down for the wealthy. His tone was quite passionate when he made it clear that no budget cut is off the table, in his pursuit of protecting the well-to-do from any further expense. Ram was much closer to Zuckerman than to Smith (I imagine she drew off Zuckerman voters because she’s a woman of minority background) but ‘mushier’ (e.g. making rambling comments about ‘working for Head Start’ when asked about the high cost of child care). Smith came off as equivocating and overly fond of vague happy talk designed to cater to all sides of every issue. Zuckerman stood out.

  2. Mark Trigo

    I agree with your take on Dunne. By becoming mini-Bernie he lost his own identity. It seemed contrived, especially since he didn’t get Bernie’s endorsement. As the campaign wore on it took on an appearance of desperation.

    I think it’s fair to say that Dunne lost this election more than Minter won it. But that’s not meant to undermine Minter. She played her cards VERY well at the end. And she wasn’t afraid to take some controversial positions, such as gun control. Minter said, “this is me!”, while Dunne kept saying, “I’m Bernie!”

    As for Annette Smith, she’s political tinnitus. Always making noise but the noise is so omnipresent and repetitive that it’s not taken seriously anymore.

  3. James Mason

    “Zuckerman’s nomination increases the chances that Randy Brock will be our next Lieutenant Governor”

    I think you’re underestimating the voting population’s apathy (at best) towards Randy Brock. He’s a walking punch line and a has-been who can’t campaign worth a cent. The only way he’ll have a chance in the general election is if the Ds don’t support their own candidate.

  4. Mark Trigo

    One other interesting tidbit.

    Dunne’s Facebook page had 6,156 likes. Minter’s had 2,570. Yet Dunne lost handily.

    There is a good project for a graduate student somewhere to explain the role of social media and it’s impact or lack thereof.


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