2022 is looking like a critical campaign season for the Vermont Progressive Party, full of peril and possibilities.
The peril is obvious. The two state senators who identify as Progressive/Democratic, Anthony Pollina and Chris Pearson, are stepping out of elective office. Cheryl Hooker, one of three senators who wear the Democratic/Progressive label, is also retiring. (The others are Phil Baruth and Andrew Perchlik.)
If the Progs don’t pick up seats somewhere, that would leave them with fractions of Baruth and Perchlik as their entire Senate caucus. That wouldn’t be good.
The Progs have some possibilities for shoring up their numbers. They have real hopes in the newly created Chittenden Central district, which includes the liberal parts of Burlington and Essex, and all of WInooski. Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky of Essex is running in the Democratic primary, and should stand a decent chance given the political nature of the district.
Other Democrats could pick up the Dem/Prog label, which would help. At least a couple of Pollina’s potential successors, Anne Watson and Jeremy Hansen, seem inclined to do so. Windham County senate candidate Wichie Artu seems cut from similar cloth.
We may also see, for the first time in years, a slate of Progressive candidates at the top of the ballot.
The big takeaway from the first campaign finance deadline of 2022 (for state candidates only, not federal) is that the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor is going to be a heated affair. All four candidates raised respectable amounts of money, with a couple of them clearly rising to the top.
Disclaimer: Fundraising is not the only measure of a campaign’s health. Organization and grassroots appeal are also key, but it’s very hard to measure those and very simple to read financial filings, So we look for the missing keys under the streetlight where we can see.
Leading the pack is former state Rep. Kitty Toll, widely believed to be the choice of most party regulars. She raised $118,000, which is quite a lot for this early in an LG race. She had 323 separate donors, 227 of them giving less than $100 apiece.
Coming in a sollid second is former LG David Zuckerman, with $92,000. Patricia Preston, head of the Vermont Council on World Affairs, raised $89,000 with a big fat asterisk: $23,000 of her total came from in-kind donations. That’s a very high total, and it means she has far less cash on hand than it appears at first glance. Rep. Charlie Kimbell is a distant fourth with $44,000 raised.
Another day, another Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Ex-LG David Zuckerman makes four, and ex-LG Doug Racine may make it five.
Meanwhile, the Democratic field for governor is seen in the Artist’s Rendering above.
Nobody. No one. Not a soul. Zero, zilch, nada.
Dip into the Democratic rumor mill?
Crickets. No sign that anyone in Democratic circles is even considering a run.
It’s already too late for a relative unknown to mount a competitive statewide campaign. By “relative unknown,” I mean anybody who’s never held or won a major-party nomination for a statewide office. See: Christine Hallquist, 2018. After getting a late start, she didn’t have enough time to both (1) introduce herself to the electorate and (2) do the necessary fundraising.
Yup, the fix is in. Phil Scott, presumptive governor-elect. Two More Years!
There’s nothing new in Secretary of State Jim Condos penning an op-ed for Vermont news outlets. Does it all the time. But there’s something different with his latest: He lists deputy SoS Chris Winters as co-author. And earlier this month, Condos’ office announced the creation of an Elections “Myth vs. Fact” page on the Secretary’s website. Specifically, it announced that Condos and Winters had created the page.
This would be mere trivia except for one thing. The Democratic rumor mill is rife with word that Condos will not seek a seventh term in office, and that he will endorse Winters as his successor. In that context, it makes all the sense in the world for Condos to be elevating Winters to kinda-sorta coequal status in the public business of the office.
Condos’ endorsement would be a huge plus for the politically untested Winters, but it would be far from dispositive. There would be other entries in the race, possibly from two distinct spheres: (1) the technocrat class, with experience in running elections and such, and (2) Democratic politicos looking to climb the ladder. I don’t have specific names in either category besides Winters in Column A, but the opening would be a big fat juicy opportunity.
The statewide offices, generally speaking, are the best perch for those seeking to reach the highest levels of Vermont politics. They get your name before a statewide audience. They get voters accustomed to filling in the oval next to your name. (I was going to say “pulling the lever,” but I need provide no additional proof that I’m old.) A statewide post is a far better launchpad than any position in the Legislature, and I’m including Speaker and Pro Tem in that calculation. Most people, even most voters, just don’t pay much attention to the Statehouse.
An income tax surcharge — permanent or temporary — is a political nonstarter in Vermont. It was one of Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman’s major proposals in his bid for governor, and look what it got him. I am fully confident that a wealth tax would fail to draw anywhere near a majority in either the House or Senate Dem/Prog caucuses, let alone escape Gov. Phil Scott’s ever-ready veto pen.
But it’s a really good idea, and it’s a real shame we’re not taking it seriously.
First of all, Vermont needs new revenue. We’re threatened with huge budget cuts unless the federal government comes to our rescue. And even if it does, we need major public-sector investment on climate issues, broadband, housing, and higher education. Among many others. Even Scott acknowledges the need for these investments, but then he shrugs his shoulders and says we just can’t do it.
Second, the wealthiest Vermonters, just like the wealthiest Americans, have benefited tremendously from federal and state tax policies that cater to their interests. Zuckerman based his call for a temporary wealth tax on the fact that top earners really cashed in on Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. The lite-guv simply asked them to pay a share of that bounty for the greater good of the state.
But even before Trump, the system was rigged on behalf of the wealthiest. Ronald Reagan started this ball rolling, and it’s just gotten worse and worse since then. The above chart, taken from the Public Assets Institute’s “State of Working Vermont 2020” report, shows the result of these decades of an unbalanced economy and tax system. From the report:
Over the last four decades, there has been a dramatic upward redistribution of income in Vermont and across the country. In 2019, the top 20 percent of Vermont households received almost half (48.4 percenty) of the income earned in the state. The top 5 percent of households got 20.7 percent. Average income for the top 20 percent of households had increased more than 8 percent since 2007, after adjusting for inflation. For the bottom 20 percent, average income was down more than 7 percent.
And that’s just the income part of this equation. It doesn’t address taxation, which is generally very regressive at the federal level and in the vast majority of states.
My recent post about the Vermont Democratic Party drew more reaction than just about anything I’ve ever written… with the notable exception of the Latin Motto controversy. Almost all of it was positive, and much of it came from young folks who feel like they got the cold-shoulder treatment from the party.
At least a couple of people asked me to do the Progressive Party. And while I did briefly address their failings in my post-election “Winners and Losers” piece, there’s more to be said.
Short take: 2020 was a disastrous year for the Progs. They managed to hold onto their seven-seat caucus despite three retirements and one upset defeat, which is noteworthy. But otherwise, the bad far outweighs the good.
Let’s start with the electoral defeats of two prominent Prog-identified pols. Tim Ashe finished a distant second to Molly Gray in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman lost by 41 points to Gov. Phil Scott.
It’s hard to understate how big a setback this is for the Progs. They’ve suffered a huge loss of influence in the Senate, with Ashe’s departure as President Pro Tem and Zuckerman relinquishing the gavel. Also, Ashe and Zuckerman were the Progs’ top two hopes for statewide office. They had built their political careers over more than a decade of success, but they’re off the charts (at least for now).
Also, the magnitude of their losses calls into question whether the Progressive label is statewide electoral poison. Ashe lost by 11 points to Molly Gray, who was a complete political unknown at the beginning of the year. Zuckerman faced impossible odds in taking on Phil Scott during the pandemic; but even so, 41 points???
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.
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.
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.
Something is happening that almost certainly has never happened before. In the general election campaign (post-primary), the candidates for lieutenant governor have outspent the candidates for governor.
This is mainly because Republican Scott Milne continues to drop large amounts of cash for TV ads. In the past week, Milne has reported mass media buys totaling roughly $140,000, with all but $1,600 going for TV spots. (The remainder was for robo-calls.)
Campaigns filing mass media reports are required to list any candidates mentioned in the material. Milne’s October ads mention himself and Democrat Molly Gray. I’ll assume they don’t paint Gray in a flattering light… and I’ll assume we have heard the last of Milne’s whining about negative campaigning, since he’s gone ham on the whole attack thing.
Since the August primary, Milne has spent a total of $102,000 on TV ads alone. He’s spent nothing on radio, and hardly anything on newspaper ads.
Gray hasn’t reported any mass media buys since 10/15, and has spent $52,000 since the August primary. Her media buys are widely distributed among TV, online and mailing, and she spends a lot more than Milne on staffing, organization and events. As I wrote earlier, Milne has adopted the Disembodied Head style of campaigning.
The race for governor, meanwhile, has been running on the cheap. Gov. Phil Scott has spent $11,000 for online advertising since 10/15, while Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman’s most recent mass media buy was on the 16th — $25,000 for TV ads. Nothing since.