On the surface, the Vermont Democratic Party did just fine this election. Sure, Phil Scott cruised to re-election and they lost a few legislative seats. But Scott was virtually unbeatable thanks to his patient, measured response to the pandemic. Besides, it wasn’t one of their own who took the bullet, it was David Zuckerman, a Prog/Dem with the emphasis on Prog. And they elected a bright new hope, Molly Gray, to the lieutenant governorship, held onto the other statewide offices, and held on to lopsided majorities in the House and Senate.
But when you take a closer look, this was a sneaky bad year for the Dems. They once again let Scott steal their lunch money. This was a bad year to take him on, but they’ve barely tried to beat Scott in the last several cycles. Since the 2010 race for lieutenant governor, they’ve put up a parade of under-resourced first-timers against Scott, and he’s barely had to break a sweat.
Gray’s victory is nice, but she was up against a terrible Republican candidate. As for the Legislature, if this wasn’t the year to rack up gains, I don’t know what is. They had the benefit of widespread anti-Trump animus to drive support for down-ballot races, and failed to capitalize.
I didn’t realize how much the Vermont Dems were resting on their structural advantages until I listened to a pair of podcast interviews from the fine folks at Crooked Media. The first featured Ben Wikler, head of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, the second was with Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, founder of of Project Fair Fight. Both have taken state parties that faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and both have turned those states into Democratic success stories.
The Wisconsin Democrats have been fighting an uphill battle since 2010, when Koch Brothers acolyte Scott Walker was elected governor. He and the Republican Legislature enacted a series of laws designed to make things difficult for Democrats, including tough anti-union legislation and new restrictions on voting rights. After Walker won a second term in 2014 and Donald Trump won the state in 2016, said Wikler, “There was this question, ‘Has Wisconsin become a red state?’ The reason it’s not is that so many people decided that they were going to keep fighting back even though everything seemed like it was lost.”
The Democratic comeback started paying off in 2018, when Walker’s bid for a third term was narrowly derailed by Tony Evers. And this year, the Dems delivered WIsconsin for Joe Biden.
How did they do it? Well, it’s not rocket science. It’s just a lot of hard work. “In the spring of 2017, my predecessor started building an Obama-style neighborhood team-based organizing operation,” Wikler said. “We swept every statewide race in 2018. I was elected chair the next year, and we supercharged the whole thing.”
The Wisconsin party built an integrated effort from the top down and bottom up. Wikler: “In the final stretch here, we had phone banks six nights a week recruiting poll workers and observers, alongside phone banking to talk to voters, alongside the follow-up teams for absentee ballot cure, alongside text bankers, people chalking on college campuses and driving sound trucks around cities, every single piece, and it all fit together to help people learn about rules that were changing in real time.”
Same story with Abrams, who wasn’t willing to settle for persistent defeat. After her disputed loss in the 2018 racer for governor, she turned her attention to making sure that fate never befell another Georgia Democrat. The party defied all expectations by delivering the state for Biden and forcing two incumbent Republican U.S. Senators into January runoff elections.
Vermont Democrats haven’t faced the same kind of pressure since the 1950s, and it shows. The party functions more like a club than a movement. And it’s a club for seniors. Go to any state committee meeting, and you’ll see an ocean of gray hair. They constantly acknowledge the need to get younger, but their actions put up all sorts of barriers to engaging young people.
That’s why you see young people try to get involved, and quickly become discouraged. That’s why you see independent organizations like Rights & Democracy and Indivisible catch on in Vermont. That’s why a lot of Vermont activists are devoting so much of their time to remote organizing in other states.
The VDP has also experienced constant staff turnover, which makes it harder to achieve consistency and carry out long-term strategy. To some extent this is normal, as young activists learn the ropes and move on. But the Vermont Dems’ turnover rate is extreme, and points to a toxic work environment. I’m not in a position to diagnose the specific problems, but I know they exist.
There are all sorts of tools at the Dems’ disposal, from digital communications to trainings and manuals. There are people in Vermont who are well versed in this stuff, and people from outside who are willing to share information and best practices.
All it would take is an understanding that business as usual isn’t good enough, that it’s worth risking your status as a big frog in a small pond to open the way to something bigger and better.
The Democrats only lost a few seats in the House, but those narrow losses plus the continued presence of Scott in the corner office will make it almost impossible to move progressive policies in the next biennium. Is the party willing to settle for that? By their actions, I’d have to say yes.
But let’s spin it forward to a very plausible nightmare scenario for Democrats. Let’s say Scott retires in 2022. and an 83-year-old Bernie Sanders steps aside in 2024. With the encouragement of national Republicans, Scott runs for Sanders’ seat — and Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts runs for governor.
Both would be tough to beat. Scott would retain his popularity and have unlimited resources behind him. Tebbetts enjoys strong and positive name recognition thanks to his years at WCAX-TV, and he has the aura of reasonable moderation that has meant success for Scott and Jim Douglas.
Would that be enough to wake up the long-somnolent Democratic Party? Perhaps. But why wait until then? Why not adopt the practices of highly successful parties in other states? Why not open the doors to new activists — even if it makes you less comfortable, even if it makes you rethink everything you’ve done?