Category Archives: 2016 election

Do the Democrats want to beat Phil Scott?

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.

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Four anti-wind activists ran for the House. They went 0-for-4.

The one-sided votes in Grafton and Windham against the Stiles Brook project were victories for the anti-wind movement. But there were some setbacks that call into question the movement’s political sway.

Four prominent opponents of ridgeline wind were candidates for the State House this year. None were elected.

Each race was different, and generalizing form a small sample size is a mug’s game. But there are a couple of inferences that strike me as valid.

1. The anti-wind movement is not strong enough to have a measurable impact on elections. The results support the movement’s image as noisy and dedicated, but numerically small. There aren’t many voters who are motivated by the issue.

2. The movement is hamstrung by its own political divisions. There are anti-wind activists in all three of Vermont’s major parties*. Two of the four losing candidates ran as Democrats; the other two as Republicans.

*Liberty Union may be a Major Party by Vermont’s very generous legal standard, but it is not a “major party” by any objective measure.

So now, let’s review the four anti-wind losers.

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Sue Minter did worse than I thought

This week’s certification of the state election results brought a popular headline: Bernie Sanders drew more than 18,000 write-in votes for president.

On the one hand, impressive. On the other, that and a buck-fifty will buy you a cup of coffee. It provided some warm fee-fees to Bernie loyalists, and in Vermont it was a no-risk move since there was no way Hillary Clinton was going to lose Vermont. (As for those who voted for Bernie or Jill Stein or Vermin Supreme in the states that were close, well, thanks for helping elect President Trump.)

But there is one significant implication of Bernie’s write-in total, and it has to do with the gubernatorial candidacy of Sue Minter.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, I theorized that the long, expensive campaign had had little impact — that Phil Scott entered as the favorite and exited the same.

Now, I’m seriously rethinking that notion.

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Bernie’s gift to the Trumpers

In the campaign of 2016, Bernie Sanders offered a progressive critique of our economic/political system that resonated with a broad swath of the electorate. He articulated things that many of us had been thinking for a long time, and did it in a way that cut through the white noise of political discourse.

He did a lot of things right. There’s one thing he got wrong — well, let’s say he got it partly right — and as it turned out, that one thing may have made a crucial difference for Donald Trump.

Bernie’s analysis of trade and domestic job losses focused mainly on one element: international trade agreements.

He’s about one-fourth right. We’ll get to the other three-fourths in a bit.

His simplified message proved very powerful in his fight for the Democratic nomination, and was a core argument in his case against Hillary Clinton. But afterward, it became a potent weapon in the Trump arsenal. One could argue it won him the election, since his extremely narrow victories in Rust Belt states were due to economic anxiety focused on those evil trade deals.

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Finding a positive response to the election

Like many other liberals, I’ve been dealing with the pending Caligula Administration with studious avoidance. Not watching the news (not even Rachel), ignoring all the stuff coming out of Washington these days.

Not a healthy long-term solution, but I just can’t spend much time staring into the void without it staring back. Fortunately for me, I write about Vermont politics, so I can remain engaged without focusing on the potential horrors of the next two years.

Also helps that I’m a cis white male, so my immediate freedom, security, and personal safety are not at risk.

But still, not a long-term solution. A correspondent writes:

I still feel physically ill from last week, and am only now dipping back into the news. And trying to figure out what to do that might be useful. And not coming up with a lot yet.

I have some ideas that don’t involve moving to Canada or taking part in ineffectual protests on our safe Vermont streets or the left’s favorite pastime, the circular firing squad. They don’t immediately involve political action of any sort, because it kinda feels toxic right now and there’s plenty of time to plan for 2018’s Return Of The Jedi.

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A few numbers that surprised me

While prepping for my weekly guest spot on Brattleboro’s WKVT Radio (available in podcast form here), I spent some time looking over the Vermont election returns from last Tuesday. And i found some things that surprised me. (All taken from the Secretary of State’s unofficial results.)

For starters, here are three numbers.

166,807

139,252

178,572

The first two are the vote totals for Phil Scott and Sue Minter respectively.

The third? The number of votes in Vermont for Hillary Clinton.

Does that surprise you? It surprised me. Clinton outpolled Phil Scott by nearly 12,000 votes. Sue Minter fell disastrously short of Clinton’s total.

If Minter had simply been able to ride Clinton’s coattails, she would have won the governorship.

(And if Democrats had been smarter when they had legislative majorities and the governorship, they would have established a straight-ticket option on the ballot. Just sayin’.)

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Would Bernie have won?

A lot of Bernie backers are reacting to Donald Trump’s victory by blaming the victim — Hillary Clinton — and asserting that Bernie Sanders would have won this thing.

Which, first of all, is absolutely unknowable.

Second, the odds would have been longer for Bernie.

There are a couple of layers to this. First, the belief that if the DNC hadn’t had its thumb on the scale, Bernie would have won the primary. And second, as the nominee he would have been a more effective opponent to Trump.

Let’s take the first. Bernieacs are fond of blaming the superdelegates for Clinton’s victory. But the fact is, Hillary clinched the nomination without the superdelegates. Throughout the primary season, she ran ahead of Bernie. Slightly ahead, but ahead.

Bernie never showed that his progressive agenda could attract voters beyond his core support. He racked up a lot of his victories in caucus states, where a small but enthusiastic base could carry a candidate. He was never able to consistently beat Clinton in actual primaries.

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