Gather ’round, kids. It’s storytime.
Today I’ll tell you a tale of how Vermont Democrats owned themselves into a Phil Scott Senatorship.
We pick it up from the present day, when the Dems have clearly waved the white flag on the 2020 gubernatorial race. In fact, many of them believe Scott deserves a third term because of how he’s handled the pandemic.
They are entitled to their opinion. But they may not like the consequences headed their way.
Let’s assume that Scott wins re-election by double digits, further cementing his reputation as a moderate who can win elections in solid blue Vermont — enhancing his unique value to national Republican forces looking to pick off a safe blue Senate seat.
At the same time, Joe Biden wins the presidency and the Democrats take a majority in the U.S. Senate. Biden opens the floodgates of federal assistance for fighting Covid-19 and rebuilding the economy. Pat Leahy becomes chair of Senate Appropriations, where he can make sure Vermont gets a healthy slice of the pie.
This makes Scott’s third term much easier, as he doesn’t have to close massive budget gaps. But he decides against seeking a fourth term in 2022, and departs the scene as a noble figure who steered the Good Ship Vermont through stormy seas.
After the jump: Governor Donovan, Dem disunity, Bernie the retiree, and Senator Phil Scott.
The opening produces a crowded Democratic field, from which Attorney General TJ Donovan emerges with the nomination. Without Scott, the Republicans can’t find a strong candidate.
Meanwhile, Pat Leahy confounds the prognosticators by seeking another term in the Senate. He still feels strong enough by the Senate’s very forgiving standards, and he remains a real asset to his home state because he can bring home plenty of bacon. Also, he gets the chance to break every record for Senatorial longevity.
As governor, Donovan will have to be a leader on policy and an effective administrator. His tenure as AG doesn’t prove he can do either one. He can give a good speech, for sure. But the Democrats will return to the Shumlin-era pattern of internal squabbling — made all the worse by a looming U.S. Senate vacancy in 2024.
Yep, Bernie Sanders is the first of our very senior Congresscritters to actually retire.
This sets off an even bigger scramble on the left than in 2022, although Donovan doesn’t join the fray; it’d be too embarrassing to abandon the governorship halfway through his first term to seek the Senate.
Meanwhile, Phil Scott emerges from his garage wiping his hands on a greasy rag, and announces a (cough) reluctant return to the arena. And while a crowd of Dem and Prog contenders knock each other around in a primary for the ages, Scott sails to the Republican senatorial nomination.
National conservative groups sense an opportunity to pick off a safe Democratic seat, and flood Vermont with pro-Scott money. I’m not talking a million or two or three. I’m talking 10 million-plus. The sky’s the limit. Especially if the Republicans have an opportunity to retake a Senate majority. Not to mention the chance to embarrass the progressive movement by replacing their Bernie with a Republican.
I pause now for a story within a story, except this one’s historical truth. Back in 2002, billionaire businessman Craig Benson became governor of New Hampshire. He chose a young lawyer named Kelly Ayotte to be his attorney general. (In NH, the AG is chosen by the governor with the approval of the Executive Council and serves a four-year term. (Don’t get me started on the Executive Council, which is a ridiculous institution.)
Benson was such a disaster that he managed the rare feat of losing his bid for a second term. His successor was moderate Democrat John Lynch. When Ayotte’s term expired, Lynch decided to renominate her — despite the fact that Ayotte was a staunch opponent of reproductive rights and an advocate for the death penalty.
Ayotte resigned in 2009 to run for the U.S. Senate. And she won, thanks to Lynch. He’d kept her in a high-profile position and given her invaluable bipartisan credibility. Ayotte was the last Republican to win a U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire, which has been reliably blue in recent federal elections.
Now, back to our imaginary but highly plausible story of Vermont Future. In this sequence of events, the role of John Lynch is played by the Vermont Democratic Party and its various leaders. They have buoyed Phil Scott’s political career by failing to run effective candidates against him and — more crucially — cementing his reputation as a nice-guy moderate. They have appeared alongside Scott at press conferences, even during campaign season. They have failed to get their act together on legislative policies that would present Scott with tough choices that could erase his bipartisan image.
Most of all, they’ve taken the state of Vermont for granted. The Democrats have tremendous political capital. And what happens when you have seemingly endless supplies of an asset? You don’t treat it with respect. You take it for granted. Given enough time, you squander it.
Remember this, if we find ourselves with Senator Phil Scott in 2025. A Senator who may truly be a moderate, but who could cast the deciding vote for Mitch McConnell as Majority Leader in the 117th Congress.
Dear John Walters,
There are a lot of assumptions in this commentary. Although I’m a big Pat Leahy fan, I’m an active, reasonably healthy 79-year-old, and I didn’t think Ed Markey should be running again, let alone Leahy in his eighties, so let’s hope he retires with praise and dignity in 2022. But if you think Leahy might run again, if he doesn’t, mightn’t Peter Welch try to move up? (I hope Welch stays put, and lets someone young enough to achieve some seniority take the seat, but,,,,)
However, the biggest assumption is that Phil Scott would WANT to join the current Senate Republicans. He doesn’t seem to have much in common with a lot of them, any more than Jim Douglas does.
Hey John: Interesting stuff, but pretty sure Leahy would choose Chair of Judiciary instead. Why? Well, he already had that choice to make last time Dems were in control, and he picked the white-hot spotlight of Judiciary, while remaining very much a part of the Appropriations process (to Vermont’s advantage). And he’d be Senate President Pro Tempore to boot.