Initial Thoughts on a Robust Primary

So many votes, they barely fit

With the exception of the 462-candidate pile-up that was the Chittenden County Democratic Senate primary, it was an election night bereft of drama. The big races turned out to be uncompetitive, and all were called early in the evening. Which is not to say it wasn’t interesting, at least not to political dead-enders like me. So, thoughts in no particular order:

The Laracey Effect is strong. My own invention, the Laracey Effect is named for Mel Laracey, a deputy city treasurer in Ann Arbor, Michigan many moons ago. He decided to run for State House in an extremely competitive primary. It did not go well; he finished in the back of the pack. Because everyone in and around City Hall knew him, he thought that meant everyone knew him. But in truth, the vast majority of voters had no connection to City Hall.

Tim Ashe is well known in Burlington and Montpelier. He and pretty much everyone else thought that made him well known across the state. Not true. And when the pandemic prevented him from campaigning until the end of June, his fate was sealed.

I thought Molly Gray was going to win, but I was far from certain about it. Turned out she won easily. More easily in a competitive four-way race, in fact, than David Zuckerman did in (effectively) a two-way race. Zuckerman beat Rebecca Holcombe by 10,552 votes. Gray beat Ashe by 11,679, and came within 510 votes of Zuckerman’s total.

Ingram, by the way, was an even bigger victim of the Laracey Effect, believing she had a substantial statewide profile. She finished a distant fourth, and was never a factor in the race. So was former legislative counsel Peter Griffin, who ran for the House seat being vacated by Kitty Toll and finished a poor second.

Expanded mail-in voting was a resounding success. Record turnout when neither of our Senate seats were on the ballot, and with little apparent drama in either race for governor. With universal mail voting available in November, we’re on course to set another turnout record. It’s also a strong argument for mail voting everywhere — that is, if you like maximizing participation in our democracy. At least two of our three political parties do.

There was a lot of unhappiness with the Democratic gubernatorial choices. There were 6,569 write-in votes, more than six percent of the total. (Most of them presumably cast for Gov. Phil Scott.) There were 7,739 blank ballots for governor. Think of that: Seven percent of those who bothered to cast votes couldn’t be bothered to choose a gubernatorial candidate. That’s stunning. And seems to reveal a broad dissatisfaction with the choices on offer. One more sign that Zuckerman has some serious work to do.

A pair of significant advances for diversifying our political monoculture. Gray has to be the heavy favorite for LG, and will be near the front of the line for future opportunities. Sooner or later, our very senior Congressmembers will have to start retiring. Phil Scott is a strong favorite to win again this year, but his run will come to an end sometime. Gray elbowed her way through a whole bunch of men, and is now poised to become our second female governor or our very first-ever female member of Congress. Whatever you think of Tim Ashe, Gray’s victory is good for the sake of breaking Vermont’s glass ceiling.

And then there’s Kesha Ram, who ran a truly impressive campaign to easily win a Democratic nomination for state Senate in Chittenden County. She’s virtually certain to become the first woman of color in Senate history.

It’s sad that it takes so little to boost Vermont’s gender, racial and ethnic diversity, but we’ll take what we can get.

There’s far more to the power structure of Vermont politics than Montpelier. Corollary to the Laracey Effect. When Gray announced she was exploring a race for LG, literally no one in the Statehouse had any idea who she was. (There are a LOT of assistant attorneys general.) But she sprang from a family with deep connections in Democratic circles, largely outside of Montpelier. She had strong ties to the Peter Welch and Patrick Leahy networks. That gave her instant credibility when she started making the rounds.

To her credit, she more than surpassed expectations. Her family and political lineage gave her entree to Democratic power brokers — but it was her actual performance and character that won their support. If the #vtpoli world was as smart as we think we are, we would have taken Gray more seriously from the beginning. But we are all Montpelier myopic.

There are a lot of Democratic primary voters who don’t like Progressives. Ashe was a dud. Zuckerman barely outdid Molly Gray. Chris Pearson hung onto his Senate seat by the skin of his teeth, and may face a recount. Former Progressive lawmaker Susan Hatch Davis ran poorly in two separate Democratic contests, for House and for Senate.

Funny thing, many Democrats prefer Democratic candidates in a Democratic primary. They look at rebranded Progs with suspicion. Political parties are, after all, assemblages of like-minded individuals with a common purpose. Is it any wonder that members of the group would tend to support candidates who are in the trenches alongside them?

Bernie Sanders’ coattails are far shorter than you’d think. The only time Sanders’ support made a big difference was in Pearson’s initial race for Senate in 2016. Sanders was flying high after his presidential bid, and his fundraising prowess was unmatched. When he urged supporters to donate to Pearson (and several other candidates across the country), the response was overwhelming. Pearson took in more than $60,000 in a couple of days, IIRC.

But even so, Pearson only managed to finish sixth in the race for six seats. As he has ever since. He says he hasn’t built up the name recognition of other incumbents, but that excuse is near its sell-by date. Last night he almost lost to June Heston, who raised very little money and conducted a low-profile campaign, to put it kindly.

Plus, the Senate challengers endorsed by Sanders finished far off the pace.

Conservatives can’t win. John Klar managed to attract one-fifth of the minority Republican electorate. Meg Hansen came nowhere near beating Scott Milne. There is still no evidence that a conservative can be politically competitive in Vermont. Phil Scott remains the one and only Republican with proven statewide voter appeal, and he treats the party hierarchy with open disdain.

The Progressives dodged a bullet. Tim Ashe, the most powerful officeholder with a “P” attached to his name, is out of the picture. Zuckerman, the highest-profile Progressive in Vermont, gave up the lieutenant governorship and faces a daunting challenge against Gov. Phil Scott in November. If Pearson had come up short, the Progs would have been reduced to Anthony Pollina in the Senate.

They also came into yesterday looking at potential losses in their tiny House caucus due to the retirements of Diana Gonzalez and Zach Ralph. But Emma Mulvaney-Stanak pulled an upset over incumbent Dem Jean O’Sullivan, Tanya Vyhovsky nabbed a Democratic nomination in Essex Junction, Taylor Small won a nomination in Winooski, Elizabeth Burrows is in line to replace Ralph, and Heather Surprenant won the primary to succeed iconoclastic Dem Randall Szott. The Progs will have substantially less clout in the Senate, but could actually emerge from November a bit stronger in the House. And they’ll have a powerful bargaining position with the majority Dems. Even if the Dems win a few seats and reach the magic 100 number, they’d still depend on Progressive support to override vetoes if necessary.

There’s something about Burlington politics. In city elections, the Progs have been on the march, winning a majority on city council and looking strong in next spring’s mayoral race, what with Miro carrying the albatross of The Hole. But besides Mulvaney-Stanak’s victory, it was a good night for Democrats in races for state offices. Ashe’s hometown showing wasn’t nearly enough to outweigh Gray’s outstate strength. Prog-identified candidates ran poorly in the Chittenden County Senate race, for which Burlington is the center of gravity. Two Democratic-identified candidates won in Chittenden 6-2, easily outpolling Progressive Jesse Paul Warren and small-p progressive Scott Pavek.

I will leave it to more experienced Queen City minds than mine to explain the seeming contradiction. Why do Dems do relatively well in state elections, while city politics is trending in a Progressive direction?

More thoughts will emerge over time, but those are my top takes for the Day After.


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