Something struck me in last night’s election returns. Specifically, the two-seat switch from R to D in the state senate, the Republicans losing their last remaining seats in Chittenden and Washington Counties.
Those two seats had been held for years by moderate Republicans Diane Snelling and Bill Doyle. In the absence of those popular stalwarts, it’s hard to see the R’s being competitive in Chittenden or Washington anytime soon. Meanwhile, the VTGOP strengthened its grip in Franklin and Rutland Counties, which used to be prime D/R battlegrounds.
I see a clear political topography emerging. There’s Freeway Vermont, which stretches along I-89 from northern Chittenden County to White River Junction, and along I-91 from Thetford or thereabouts all the way to the Massachusetts border. That’s solid Democratic territory, with Republicans struggling to even recruit candidates, let alone win.
Then there’s Two-Lane Vermont, the back roads and small towns plus a few cities that have been, to a large extent, left behind by the tide of progress. Rutland is the prime example. I include St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, and Barre in that number.
This isn’t 100 percent applicable. Saints J and A are located near freeways, but they still have the air of Left Behindedness. They are the urban outposts of Two-Lane Vermont. The Mad River Valley is on a two-lane highway, but has more in common culturally with Burlington or Montpelier than with other rural areas.
This is not purely a liberal/conservative breakdown. A lot of Two-Laners are hostile to government and taxation and protective of their gun rights. But some are old-line Vermont liberals and aging hippies motivated by a love for the Vermont they know and opposition to anything that might threaten it, whether that be a Dollar General store, a cellphone tower, a growing opioid crisis, or a renewable energy installation. Or mandatory vaccines, for that matter.
You find a lot of these folks in the Route 14 corridor from East Montpelier to Hardwick and meandering up to Craftsbury. Bennington is another redoubt, reliably sending Democrats to the Legislature but voting down fluoridation of the water supply and dubious about wind and solar siting.
Freeway Vermont is on the move. Its population is growing (some faster than others), its economies diversifying, entrepreneurialism thriving, startups growing into established employers (and some, eventually, getting sold to out-of-state corporations).
The prime exemplar of Freeway Vermont at work: the “Yes” votes on the redevelopment of the Burlington Town Mall. The majority of Burlingtonians embraced the project, whatever changes it might mean for the ambience of downtown. (Mayor Miro Weinberger was one of Tuesday night’s big winners, although his name was not on the ballot.)
Two-Lane Vermont is stuck in time, its residents fearful of what they are losing. Opportunities are lacking, incomes are stagnant; the kids move away after graduating, the schools are threatened by declining enrollment and Act 46, even its general stores and post offices are endangered species.
You might say that Two-Lane Vermont is home for a new version of “Take Back Vermont.” But this time it’s not about civil unions; it’s a broader existential fear of change and the looming presence of the unfamiliar.
In his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, Matt Dunne sought to bridge the gap between the two Vermonts. He may have lost the primary, but his ideas are worth considering as the Democratic Party ponders its post-Shumlin future. They need to find ways to broaden their appeal outside of Freeway Vermont and bring our two cultures closer together.
These are broad themes I’m outlining. I realize there are exceptions to everything I say. I just find it a valuable way of thinking about the cultural and political landscape of Vermont, which are more complicated than they appear.