State Sen. Debbie Ingram brought her political career to a close, whether she meant to or not, when she endorsed Republican Scott Milne for lieutenant governor today. The progressive Democrat had finished a distant fourth in a four-person race for her party’s LG nomination. bagging less than nine percent of the vote.
And honestly, it’s hard to see her move as anything more than sour grapes.
After all, she followed up her primary loss with an intemperate opinion piece blaming her candidacy’s failure on the media for ignoring “diversity candidates.”
So her solution is to support a white cis man over a Democratic woman? And to posit Milne as the right man for the job because of his business experience? That seems entirely out of bounds for one of the more progressive members of the Senate — one who made her political bones as an advocate for social equity of all kinds.
Then again, she did pledge last year to support Congressional term limits, a longtime conservative talking point. (I don’t remember this at all; it came up in a Google search today.) So maybe she is less conventionally progressive than she seemed.
But the Milne endorsement, combined with her post-defeat opinion piece, certainly opens the door to a “sour grapes” interpretation.
After the jump: The media and “diversity candidates”
Ingram’s essay drew a distinction between the third- and fourth-place finishers, herself and Brenda Siegel, and the top two, Molly Gray and Tim Ashe. The former were doomed to failure, in her view, by the media’s decision that Gray and Ashe were the leading figures in the race. Ashe, I presume, because he’s a man; and Gray because although she’s female, she is “is strongly ensconced among prominent Vermont families.” So, a child of privilege, I guess?
I have previously said my piece on the media’s role in winnowing candidates. It’s a subject of much complaining by losers, but the media’s role is far more limited than they’d like to think. Look, I’ve been writing about #vtpoli for nearly a decade, and I know that the vast majority of Vermonters are simply not interested in Vermont politics. Media coverage is mostly consumed by those who are active in the arena, somehow or other, and the vast majority of them enter a campaign season with their minds made up.
I’ll acknowledge that media coverage has more influence on the shape of a race than preseason predictions do on who wins the World Series — but not much more.
So why does one campaign soar while another fails to launch? Connections help, and Gray excelled there. But that alone didn’t propel her. It was her hard work and her talent for impressing people that boosted her into the forefront. When her name started coming up in January, nobody in the media even knew who she was. And she only began to be taken seriously in mid-March, when her first campaign finance filing revealed the breadth and depth of her support. That’s when the winnowing began — when Gray and Ashe led the field by a significant amount.
If anything, the media was very slow to grasp the Molly Gray phenomenon.
It takes a lot to be a successful statewide candidate. Part of that is doing the work and taking strong positions on the issues. But more important is putting together an organization, raising money, and traveling the state convincing people on the ground. Gray did all that, impressively so. Ashe, beginning from a position of apparent strength, did not.
Connections may seem unfair, especially to the outsider. But while the politics business is supposedly about issues, it’s also a human endeavor with all the attributes and foibles of any other human endeavor. If people know you, or they respect people who do know you, they will give you a hearing. That’s an advantage to people like Gray, who was born in the right family but has also accomplished a great deal on her own. It should have been an even greater advantage to Ashe, who’s had years to build political networks — but he still failed.
As for Ingram’s campaign, here’s the truth. She is a two-term senator from the safest of Democratic districts. She has been a good-hearted, well-intentioned senator with a solid voting record — but she has never been seen as a leading figure in terms of policy or influence. She was, in fact, the very model of what I call the Laracey Effect: The capacity of political insiders to vastly overestimate their popularity and influence in the wider world. To judge from Ingram’s post-primary essay, she appears to believe that her work in the Senate entitled her to front-runner status. That’s wrong — and no amount of fawning media coverage would have improved her fortunes.
I was honestly surprised when Ingram declared her candidacy, because I didn’t see her as a compelling statewide figure. At the time she claimed significant support outside of conventional circles, in the communities of faith, substance use and social justice. But when push came to shove, she simply didn’t have the goods. She may have been well-liked and respected, but that wasn’t enough to get people actively behind her. The primary result was a fair reflection of her electoral appeal. Harsh, but true.
Milne and Ingram hope that her endorsement will open the door for centrists and Democrats to cross party lines. Milne called Ingram’s support “incredibly valuable,” and the outgoing senator opined that “Sometimes [people] just need one person to kind of step forward and encourage them to have the courage to follow convictions.”
What a humblebrag. And perhaps a ray of insight into the thought process that convinced Ingram that she was the one person with “convictions” who could liberate fellow Democrats from their preconceived notions.
She may harbor that hope, but this is far more likely to be a one-day story with little effect. As the primary proved, Ingram does not have a significant Democratic base. The initial reactions to her endorsement are more along the lines of “inexplicable” and “betrayal” than quiet nods of agreement.
If this is the end for Ingram as a political figure, it’s a particularly sad end to a brief political career defined by noble intentions and personal struggle.