Stupid question, right?
Ask any Democrat — well, almost any Democrat — and they’ll say of course they want to beat Phil Scott and put one of their own in the corner office.
But I’m not asking any of them.
Instead, I’m looking at their collective actions. And they tell a different story, one full of abject failure to mount competitive races, of convenient excuses for legislative inaction, of top-tier contenders avoiding a tough challenge.
Conventional wisdom says that Scott is a singularly popular Republican thanks to his plain ol’ working-man demeanor and his plausibly moderate stands on the issues. I mean, look: He’s never lost in his 20-year political career. That includes campaigns for state Senate, lieutenant governor and governor. Impressive.
But who has he beaten? How many difficult races has he had to run? How many times did he amble his way to victory?
Short answer: He’s had it about as easy as a politician could hope for.
Scott first ran for Senate in 2000, the year of the great conservative backlash over civil unions for same-sex couples. He secured one of Washington County’s three seats in a race that nearly produced a Republican sweep of the county. (Incumbent Democrat Ann Cummings barely edged out fourth-place Republican Paul Giuliani.)
After that, Scott’s fortunes were buoyed by the super-strong incumbent’s edge in state Senate races. He finished a strong third in 2002. 2004 was the closest call of his entire political career; he won the third seat by a margin of only 230 votes. 2006 and 2008 were easy wins for all three incumbents — Scott, Cummings, and the redoubtable Bill Doyle.
As a reasonably inoffensive Republican, Scott benefited from the good will of Democratic leadership. He served as vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and chair of Senate Institutions, burnishing his reputation for working across the aisle.
In 2010, Scott ran for lieutenant governor and won, beating then-state representative Steve Howard by 49-42 percent. That was the closest call he’s had in this entire decade.
As LG, Scott’s reputation for bipartisanship was given a boost by then-governor Peter Shumlin, who included Scott in his cabinet. Not the kind of move you make if you really wanted a fellow Democrat to take Scott’s place.
Unsurprisingly, the potential A-List or B-List candidates for Lite-Gov kept their distance, allowing relative unknowns Cassandra Gekas (2012) and Dean Corren (2014) to mount the altar as sacrificial lambs. Scott beat Gekas by 17 points and Corren by an astounding 26.
And that set the stage for Scott’s elevation to governor in 2016. His Democratic opponent Sue Minter was a former state representative and cabinet official, but she’d never run for statewide office and was little known outside of Montpelier and Waterbury. She lost by nine points. In 2018, the top tier of Democrats was nowhere to be seen; former utility executive Christine Hallquist made history by becoming the first openly transgender person to win a major party’s gubernatorial nomination, but she had no chance in November. Scott sailed to a 15-point victory.
Now, you tell me. Who’s more responsible for the remarkable political career of Phil Scott? The man himself — or the Democratic Party that has consistently failed to seriously challenge him, and the Democratic officeholders who’ve consistently given him a hand up?
That also goes for top Democrats who are more than happy to make public appearances with Scott, even during his 2018 re-election campaign. The governor could fill a thousand campaign brochures with photos of himself making nice with Democratic officeholders, from the legislature to statewide officials to members of our congressional delegation.
I know, we’re all proud of Vermont’s tradition of political comity. But at some point, don’t you have to be just a little bit partisan?
Now, let’s look at the Democrat-dominated legislature, where Scott provides a convenient excuse for not getting stuff done. Over and over again in the past three years, the Dems have failed to advance key bills because of the potential for a gubernatorial veto. Just as often, they’ve ended up negotiating against themselves — weakening legislation in hopes of winning the governor’s approval.
Y’know, if they had a progressive-minded Democratic governor, they’d have to actually try to craft effective legislation. This didn’t work out too well with Shumlin’s health care reform push, did it? Much safer to flail helplessly in the face of a Republican governor.
They’ve also reached a comfy non-confrontational position on taxes and spending. There was little dispute over the 2020 budget. There is no real effort to challenge Scott on taxes. VTGOP press releases will tell a different story, chronicling every tax or fee increase proposed by every single Dem or Progressive lawmaker — even though the vast majority were dead on arrival.
During the 2019 session, the Dems undermined much of their own agenda. They spent week after week trying to come up with weaker and weaker versions of key bills. In some cases, that effort prevented bills from gaining legislative approval at all. Scott didn’t have to veto a minimum wage increase, a paid family leave program or a commercial marketplace for cannabis — three high priority issues for the Dems. They also failed to confront the governor on other contentious issues, including legalization of personal possession of buprenorphine. They disappointed their liberal base by failing to seriously address climate change.
Point being, the fear of a veto was powerful juju, turning the Dem/Prog supermajority into so many zombies. And leaving potential 2020 gubernatorial candidates with precious little material to run on. For the sake of anyone willing to challenge Scott, the legislature had better come prepared next January to hold the governor’s feet to the fire. Force him to make difficult choices. Show that there’s a real difference between the Democrats and the Republican governor.
Or, well, just sit back, relax, let some schmo lose to Scott by double digits, and get back to the established routine of shadowboxing the big bad governor.