Gazing at the Ol’ Crystal Ball

Election Day. Seems like it took forever to get here, but it’s still a shock that the day is finally here. And while all the attention and anxiety is focused on the national scene, this little outpost of the Internets is all about the #vtpoli. So here are my ridiculously low-stakes takes on what’s going to happen tonight in Vermont. Refunds cheerfully offered; please keep your receipt for presentation at Customer Service.

The most likely outcome is an even-more-ridiculous version of the past four years: Phil Scott and a whole lot of Democrats. Scott seems to be a lock to win a third term. Personally, I think a Dave Zuckerman win is at least a possibility, but much more well-informed folks than me believe otherwise.

Who? Well, Scott himself for one. He conducted an entire gubernatorial campaign on the absurdly tiny budget of $307,000 (as of October 30). He never bought a single television ad. This is the closest thing to a nickel-and-dime George Aiken campaign budget that the modern era will allow.

Beyond Scott, there’s the wise guys at the Republican Governors Association, who spent almost as much on polling as Scott did for his entire campaign. The RGA’s Vermont branch, Our Vermont, kept on polling right up to the closing weeks, and never saw the need to buy a single ad — in any medium.

If you’re a Republican, that’s the good news. The rest of it could be really, really bad. We’re looking at an historically high turnout, which is customarily good news for the Democrats.

How bad could it be for the Grand Old Party?

Well, their self-funded Golden Boy, Scott Milne, is going to lose his race for lieutenant governor. He’s taken his best shot, including $287,000 of his own money and a solid opposition-research effort aimed at tarnishing the Dems’ Golden Girl, Molly Gray, plus an actual policy agenda and all his rough-hewn charm.

And it won’t be nearly enough. This is partly because of Milne’s deficiencies as a candidate, which were only slightly softened by his capable team of advisors. There’s no hint of the likeability or authenticity that has made Phil Scott a success. He spews out streams of word salad with a flat vocal affect that leaves you thinking “This guy doesn’t believe a thing he’s saying.”

But even if Milne were actually the Phil 2.0 he’s claimed to be, there’s the fact that 2020 is, far more than anything else, a referendum on Our Orange President. Democrats are riding a massive turnout wave to likely gains in Congress, in state legislatures, and the White House. The governor can survive the tsunami, but Milne will be swept away.

In fact, here’s a nice little prop bet if you’ve got some cash you can afford to lose: Molly Gray’s margin of victory over Milne will be bigger than Scott’s margin over Zuckerman.

Mind you, I’m not actually predicting this, but I think it has a good chance of happening. If it does, the payoff would be huge.

When MIlne loses, it’ll be another opportunity for Republicans to gaze into the bottomless pit of their hopes and dreams. Milne had a solid campaign team. He put forward a coherent (if unimaginative), cromulently moderate Republican platform. He tied himself firmly to Phil Scott’s coattails, and the governor cooperated reasonably in the enterprise. Milne had deep enough pockets to overcome the Dems’ customary fundraising edge.

And none of it was enough. It also failed two years ago, when Don Turner tried to paint himself as a Nice Guy Common Sense Republican. He was a better candidate, but didn’t have the resources to compete with an incumbent LG. So, what’s next in the Republicans’ search for statewide relevance outside of Phil Scott? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

Anyone who runs statewide under the Republican banner will face long odds with no real help. The party is a toxic waste dump of Tea Party/Trumpian ideology, completely out of step with Vermont politics. The latest example was a distasteful mailer targeting incumbent Sen. Brian Campion. The Bennington Banner:

The mailing, which says in the return address that it was paid for by the Vermont Republican Party, proclaims that “winter is coming” and that county residents will be facing “heat or eat” decisions as a result of bills Campion helped pass. “Because of Brian Campion, it will be colder for blue collar families,” it proclaims.

On the back is a poem painting a Dickensian portrait of life in Bennington, where politicians “play with fire” while families and children shiver and starve. “No jobs, no love, no path to aim higher / Save for tin foil, tiny spoons, and a light,” it concludes in an apparent allusion to heroin use.

That’s nice. And it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes hearts flutter in the chests of the GOP hard core, but only compounds the unpopularity of the Republican cause in Vermont. And illustrates the Grand Canyon-sized chasm between Phil Scott and the party he allegedly leads.

On to the Legislature, and more bad news for Republicans. It’s almost certain that the Dem/Prog supermajorities will be even bigger in the next biennium. Republicans will lose at least a handful of seats from their tiny House caucus. The Democrats could even crack the 100-vote House threshold for veto overrides without Progressive or Independent support.

The VTGOP started this cycle behind the eight-ball, because of their deficiencies in grassroots organization and money. The Dems had a full-time staffer devoted to recruiting and advising House candidates, while the Republicans had the volunteer efforts of ex-lawmaker Paul Dame to cover both the House and Senate. The predictable result was a weak Republican ticket that leaned heavily on candidates representing John Klar’s “Agripublican” concept, a proven electoral loser.

On top of that, you’ve got a very high turnout election, and it’s looking like a long night for the VTGOP — and a long two years for the governor, assuming he’s re-elected.

He won’t have the horses to advance any sort of agenda in his third term, even if he has one, and if he does he’s given precious few signs of it. But he’ll be a reliable check on the Dems/Progs, and soon enough he will shatter the all-time record for gubernatorial vetoes. He’s already even with reigning champion Howard Dean, and he’s served only four years to Dean’s eleven-plus.

So yeah, we’re in for a couple more years of minimal progress in the face of king-sized social and economic problems. Lookin’ forward to it. Still, it beats whatever combination of despair, blame-shifting and self-flagellation will be going on in Republican-land.

Oh, there’s one more thing that might happen post-election. An embittered Milne or a litigious lawyer (cough*BradyToensing*cough) or a certain outgoing state senator whose own bid for LG was a flop, could file a lawsuit challenging Gray’s residency status. It was a persistent undercurrent in the Milne campaign, but the idea was never put to the test. If anyone was of a mind to create a little mayhem, there’s an opportunity. I don’t think they’d win, but they could cause tsome trouble and give people like me something to write about before the Legislature returns to, um, the Statehouse or the Barre Aud or the perpetual Hell of zoom meetings or whatever else the pandemic has in store for us.

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