The Campaign That Isn’t

The effect of Covid-19 on Vermont politics is way down the list of pandemic-related concerns — somewhere below massive unemployment, food insecurity, a likely housing crisis, crippling blows to agriculture, tourism, small business, independent retail, public and private education and state and local tax revenues. (And a bunch more.)

But this is a #vtpoli blog, so the topic du jour is Our Lost Political Year.

The above chart, published by the New York Times, shows that our country is still in the throes of Covid-19’s first wave. The soul- and economy-crushing “stay home” regimen was supposed to buy us enough time to prepare a thorough defense program of testing and contact tracing. Which our federal government has completely failed to deliver. Hence, we’re stuck on the first-wave plateau while harder-hit but better-governed nations like Italy and Spain have seen vast reductions in new cases.

And no, I never thought I’d write the phrase “better-governed nations like Italy.”

Back when I was semi-gainfully employed, I wrote a pair of speculative columns about how the pandemic was affecting the process of politics — as candidates tried to figure out how to campaign without any person-to-person contact. No door knocking, no public forums or debates, no fundraisers.

And we’re still stuck right there, with less than two months to go until the primary election.

Which, by all rights, ought to be a fairly monumental event by #vtpoli’s modest standards — at least for the Democrats. They have a good contest for governor, a fine quartet of candidates for lieutenant governor, and some noteworthy campaigns for legislative seats. Things are a lot less interesting on the Republican side, although in any other year we’d see a real contest of ideas in the gubernatorial primary between incumbent Phil Scott and conservative challenger John Klar.

But when you look at that chart again, you have to think there won’t be a primary campaign at all. And the general election may well be more of the same, especially given the chances of a second wave in the fall.

It’s a shame. There are a lot of good, qualified, and/or engaging candidates who may never get a chance to show their stuff — except online, where the audiences are tiny and the effect on the broader electorate is even smaller. Also, as mentioned above, we all got more pressing concerns than who’s running for our seat in the House or whatever.

By far the biggest beneficiary of all this is our incumbent governor. He dominates every news cycle thanks to his thrice-weekly press briefings. He can righteously abstain from all the campaign-related activities he doesn’t enjoy, including fundraising and debates. He’ll have substantial backing from the Republican Governors Association, which outspent his own campaign in 2016 and ’18 and will doubtless do so again.

He can, seemingly, walk to re-election. By and large, his handling of the pandemic has been solid, measured, thoughtful — at times a little tardy, and not without blemishes. (The UI mess, the slowness to institute across-the-board testing in senior facilities and prisons, among others.) But basically, Phil Scott has Phil Scotted the hell out of this. The pandemic has emphasized his strengths. And so far, his weaknesses haven’t mattered much. I think they’ll matter a lot more when it comes to navigating our way beyond the crisis, but we’re not there yet. And as long as we’re on first-wave plateau, we won’t get there. Maybe until after the November election or sometime next year.

Things could change, of course. I’m not writing off a Democrat’s chance of unseating Scott — but right now, it looks like a vanishingly small chance. Still, Team Scott could wear out its welcome. A strict austerity budget for the rest of FY2021 may galvanize the Dem/Prog majorities in the House and Senate (although, frankly, that’d be a first). Several more months of high unemployment, spotty reopenings and fresh outbreaks of Covid-19 could sour the electoral mood. There could be more bureaucratic fumbles like the UI mess. On the other hand, a continuation of troubled times may convince voters to stick with the tried and true.

Or maybe none of this will matter. The presidential campaign may well swamp every local consideration. We could see an irresistible Democratic wave if Trump loyalists are disaffected by (a) their own guy’s diminishing stature and/or (b) lack of enthusiasm for the decidedly non-Trumpian Phil Scott, and moderate and liberal voters are galvanized by their ever-deepening antipathy for Cheeseburger President.

I mean, really, what the hell.

Aside from the gubernatorial race, Vermonters have some rare opportunities to elevate new leaders. We could elect our first female lieutenant governor, which would be a Big Biden Deal in our seemingly futile quest to actually send a woman to Congress. There are two openings in the Chittenden Senate delegation, some excellent candidates running for two safe Dem/Prog seats in Burlington’s South End, and perhaps a significant infusion of new blood in and around Essex Junction. Among others. On the Republican side, a Scott/Klar debate would be entertaining at least, and an LG debate would be worthy of attention.

In a Pandemic Primary, these contests are likely to be settled by a small and ill-informed electorate. Name recognition may buoy certain hopefuls, such as Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe in his run for LG. Or a smaller network of enthusiasts may be enough to carry a lesser-known candidate in a low-turnout primary.

One thing’s for sure: These elections are even less likely than usual to be settled on, you know, actual merit. Fresh ideas, new energy, diversity of representation may be casualties, not only of Vermonters’ tendency to keep re-electing familiar faces, but of the pandemic’s effect on our political process.

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