As promised, my lukewarm takes on the Vermont election results in the customary slash lazy columnist “Winners and Losers” style.
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner: Gov. Phil Scott. Highest vote total in history for any gubernatorial candidate. Rode his adequate handling of the pandemic to a lopsided victory over a game but under-resourced Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. More than half of the Joe Biden voters crossed party lines to elect Scott.
Just to pin that down, Scott unofficially has 248,248 votes while Zuckerman failed to crack six figures. Biden finished with 242,680. Or compare Scott to his Republican ticketmates: Donald Trump took 112,507 votes, Miriam Berry (sacrificial lamb to Peter Welch) 95,763. The voters returned lopsided (and only marginally diminished) Dem/Prog majorities to the Legislature.
Scott also saw the Dems’ chances of overriding his frequent vetoes take a hit, with the loss of a few House seats. Every single seat matters when you’re trying to get to 100. Plus, the Dems and Progs will have to identify new House leadership. A new Speaker needs at least a year to learn the ropes.
If there’s a formula for defeating Phil Scott, the Democrats have yet to identify it. Hell, this year they kinda stopped trying. Which will come back to bite them if Scott makes a run for the next U.S. Senate opening. Successor to Bernie Sanders? There’s some bitter irony for you. (He’d have to relinquish the governorship in 2021 to take on Pat Leahy or [insert Democrat here] in 2022. I don’t see him doing that.)
Losers: Capital-P Progressives and their infrastructure. The good news for the Progs is that they managed to add a seat in the House. Otherwise, 2020 has been a disaster. Tim Ashe bombed out in the LG primary, Zuckerman cratered last night, they lost their two House caucus leaders, Robin Chesnut-Tangerman and Diana Gonzalez*, and Sen. Chris Pearson continues to be the least popular member of the Chittenden delegation.
*Note: After she announced she was stepping away from the Legislature, Gonzalez was replaced by Selene Colburn in the deputy leader role. So it’s incorrect to say that the Progs lost both leaders in the election, although they did lose both during the course of the year.
Until proven otherwise, Bernie Sanders has no coattails. There is no evidence that he can push a Progressive or progressive to victory in Vermont. If he’s building a legacy or a movement that will survive his personal appeal, he ain’t doing it here.
I also have to ask: What exactly does Rights & Democracy accomplish? They spend a lot of money, much of it from Sts. Ben and Jerry, to no visible effect. I see little sign that they’re building a movement that can influence Vermont politics. Or New Hampshire politics, for that matter, since R&D is a twin-state organization. The NH Dems held serve in Congress, but failed to take down Gov. Chris Sununu and are on track for minority status in the NH House and Senate.
I’m sure the progressive Twitterverse will be all over me for this, but look, I’d love to live in a world where we’ve just elected Bernie or (my choice) Elizabeth Warren and we won 55 U.S. Senate seats and we were poised to create the Green Economy and enact universal health care and some serious regulation of the financial sector and court reforms and voting rights protections. But we don’t. And I see no objective evidence to support the notion that there’s an invisible army of progressive voters just waiting for the right “messaging” to get them stampeding to the polls.
After the jump: Room on the Democratic ladder, limited gains for the VTGOP, and more.
Winners: Ambitious Democrats, especially women. The Democratic ladder got a big ol’ reshuffle. The lopsided defeats of Ashe and Zuckerman clear away two of the top three Golden Boy Dem/Prog prospects for statewide office. Attorney General TJ Donovan is the last of the three, and Lord knows I take a dim view of his potential. Molly Gray steps into the on-deck circle, although she’ll have to produce some sort of track record before she tries to advance.
The turnover in House and Senate leadership will also produce some new contenders. Pro Tem in Waiting Becca Balint shows every sign of becoming an appealing statewide candidate, and she now has the generic yard signs to pave the way. She’ll have to navigate the tricky waters of the hidebound Senate and create a policy profile of her own, but she’s got the chops to pull that off. She has an appealing personality, which is far more important than policy positions in our politics. (See: George Aiken, Jim Douglas, Phil Scott, Bernie Sanders, Beth Pearce, Fred Tuttle, etc., etc., etc. If Vermonters decide they like you, you’re golden.)
And assuming Mitzi Johnson’s 18-vote defeat holds up in a recount, there are quite a few capable Democrats waiting for an opportunity. I think Johnson’s leadership of the Dem/Prog caucus has been woefully underrated because she doesn’t resort to the arm-twisting favored by male Speakers of the past, but she’s done a really good job herding 100-odd cats and she’d be difficult to replace. But again, there are people ready to step up and give it a go — and potentially be poised for a statewide run.
Loser: Yours truly. As I’ve done in the past, I let my unabashed partisanship influence my predictions. The VPR/VPBS poll that I pooh-poohed was essentially accurate. My prop bet on the Gov/LG margins of victory was laughably off the mark. This is why I illustrated my predictions piece with a cracked crystal ball.
Winners, but not nearly so much as they think: Vermont Republicans. They won a handful of House seats. They knocked off the leaders of the Progressive and Democratic House caucuses. They won a Senate seat because of John Rodgers’ carelessness.
And that’s about all.
Ponder this: In a year when their top officeholder won in a landslide, you can count their legislative gains on the fingers of one hand. The Dems, despite their losses, cemented their dominance of legislative politics. The VTGOP hierarchy continues to be a Trumpian disaster. Phil Scott has washed his hands of them. (Did they have an election night gathering? Did the governor bother to show up?) The idea of winning statewide elections by positioning a Republican as Phil 2.0 took another hit with the defeat of Scott Milne.
Also, while the Dems lost a few House seats, the margins of their caucus got a bit more manageable. Problematic centrists like Chris Bates and Cynthia Browning are gone, as is prickly leftist Randall Szott.
Provisional Loser: Mitzi Johnson. Her district has always been marginal territory, and she knowingly hurt her chances back home when she took on the Speakership. And, as I said above, her leadership of the fractious House has been underrated. She has worked very hard and done her level best. She’s been frustratingly moderate for the progressive-minded, but that’s a combination of her own centrist tendencies and the necessity of including every single Democrat in policymaking. Assuming the recount verifies her defeat, we’re about to discover how hard she is to replace.
Winners: Vermont political observers. For those of us obsessed with state politics and policymaking, a world of speculation has opened up. How will the pandemic affect the state’s economy? What kind of agenda will Scott put together (if any), given budgetary uncertainties and continued Dem/Prog control of the Legislature? Who’s the new Speaker? How will Balint navigate the turbulent waters of her Senate caucus? (For starters, will she retain The Ancient And Venerable One, Dick Mazza, on the Committee on Committees?) Will Pat Leahy run for re-election in 2022? (I think it becomes less likely with the Republicans seemingly retaining a Senate majority.) Will Bernie run in 2024? Will Phil Scott take a shot at a Congressional seat? Who’s moving up the Democratic depth chart?
The election may be over, but there’s no shortage of material.