Tag Archives: Sue Minter

What if that poll was hot garbage?

For the entirety of our general election season, there will be only one public opinion poll that took the temperature of the race. That would be the September VPR/VPBS poll, conducted by the estimable Rich Clark.

The results of said poll, released about two weeks ago, were very good for Republicans. Gov. Phil Scott had a commanding 21-point lead over Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. In a hypothetical 2022 matchup with Sen. Patrick Leahy, Scott had a rather stunning four-point lead. In the Lite-Gov race, Scott Milne was a little behind Molly Gray; the latter two results were within the poll’s margin of error. Also, the governor had a higher approval rating than any of Vermont’s three members of Congress — even Bernie.

This poll looms large in the narrative of the campaign because, well, it’s the only one. But what if the poll missed the mark? There’s reason to think that it significantly underestimates support for Democrats. We won’t know for sure until the votes are counted, but here’s the case for That Poll Was Hot Garbage.

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10/1 Gov Campaign Finance Reports: Spare change

I was going to call this post “Pedal to the Metal,” and on a relative scale that’s true. Both Gov. Phil Scott and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman dramatically picked up the fundraising pace in September. But by historical standards, both campaigns remain at bargain-basement level.

Zuckerman raised $107K in September, by far his best month to date, bringing his campaign total to $567K. He spent even bigger, a total of $141K in the month. By my calculation, he entered October with about $60K on hand (I’ve seen other figures in other reports, and I don’t know how they arrived at their numbers. I subtracted intake versus outflow.) Zuckerman also has $27K in the bank from past campaigns.

Scott raised $200K in September, bringing his campaign total to a measly $335K. He spent much of this year in a self-imposed campaign quarantine, as he devoted his efforts to the Covid-19 pandemic. September was the first month he took fundraising seriously, and he got decent if not spectacular returns. He didn’t spend all that much in September, so his cash on hand (again, other reports differ) is about $75K. He also has a $106K surplus from past campaigns.

Neither candidate entered October with significant wiggle room. Both will need to step up their fundraising pace if they want to boost their advertising and ground games down the home stretch.

And don’t forget that the Republican Governors Association is still lurking about. They could still pump in a flood of cash to back Scott, as they did in 2016 and 2018.

After the jump: Sources, spends, and recent history.

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Campaign Vermont 2020: No Juice

Welp, the air is out of the bouncy house. Sad to say, here we are on September 2, and there’s pretty much nothing in this woebegone Vermont campaign season to speculate about or prognosticate or even stir up the slightest semblance of interest.

That’s my big takeaway from the September 1 campaign finance reports. It’s all over but the whimpering.

Unless something huge happens, none of the statewide races look competitive. There will be, at best, only minor shifts in the makeup of the Legislature. We’ll head into a new biennium full of financial hardships and across-the-board policy challenges — with the same crew that’s given us a whole lot of status quo for the last four years.

Can you feel the excitement?

The two financial disclosures that tell the story weren’t even filed by candidates, or Vermonters. They came from the Vermont-specific political action committees funded by the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations.

The DGA’s “Our Vermont” has yet to lift a finger or spend a dime this year.

The RGA’s “A Stronger Vermont” has spent some $94,000 on a pair of polls, one in February and another in August. Otherwise, they spent a few thousand bucks on a bit of online advertising. Which tells you all you need to know about the results of those surveys: The RGA is so confident that Gov. Phil Scott will win a third term that they aren’t bothering to spend money.

Point of comparison: In the six weeks between Primary Day 2016 and October 1, 2016, the RGA spent $929,000 in support of Scott’s campaign. There was a poll in there, but the vast majority — $664,000 — bought a TV ad blitz that put Dem Sue Minter on the ropes. She never got back into the race. If the RGA saw Zuckerman as a threat, they’d be doing the same thing right now.

Election Day is still two months away, and the dynamics of the race could change. And a meteor could strike the earth. But there is no sign of a game-changing event.

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A Hero’s Journey

He has a hobbit’s chance.

David Zuckerman, that is. Having won the Democratic gubernatorial primary, he now faces an epic adventure in his attempt to defeat Gov. Phil Smau– I mean, Scott.

If the election were held today, Scott would win in a walk. But there is a path to victory for our friend the Zuckerhobbit. Not gonna be easy, though. And quite a few factors are largely out of his control.

As I get to play the role of J.R.R. Tolkien, here’s the long and winding road to a Zuckerman victory.

First, he needs a bunch of money right quick. Zuckerman’s campaign entered the month of August with a cash balance of $42,000. He also had a $26,000 surplus from previous campaigns. At the end of July, he reported several mass media buys totaling $15,000 that weren’t included in his August 1 financial report. I conclude that his actual cash balance on 8/1 was $27,000. Add in the surplus, and you’ve got $53,000.

To be competitive in a statewide race for governor, you need to have — conservatively — at least a million bucks. Preferably a million and a half. Between the launch of his candidacy and the end of July, Zuckerman raised $347,000. In the 2016 cycle, which had some different deadlines, Dem nominee Sue Minter had raised over a million bucks by mid-August. He has to pick up the pace at a time when liberal donors have plenty of calls for their money, including the race for president, the battle for a U.S. Senate majority, and efforts to turn state legislatures blue in time for the 2022 redistricting wars.

Second, he needs not to wake the dragon. In this case, the Republican Governors Association. So far, the RGA has committed very little money to defending Scott. But that could change in an instant. If the RGA sees evidence of a rising Zuckerman insurgency, it can pour in boatloads of cash in an instant. In 2016, it spent more than $3 million to get Scott into the corner office. It can, and will, do so again if Scott looks vulnerable. Zuckerman has to hope that the dragon doesn’t wake up until late October or thereabouts. Seems unlikely; the RGA is smarter than that.

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Everything’s Coming Up Phil

Speaking in purely political terms, things could hardly be going any better for Gov. Phil Scott.

His solid record on Covid-19, while flawed in some respects and overstated by him and his officials, continues to receive widespread praise. He dominates the political news with his thrice-weekly marathon briefings. His popularity appears to be as high as ever, and many Democrats have already — quietly — conceded his re-election.

And now, the July 1 campaign finance filings are full of good cheer for Scott and bad news for his would-be opponents.

Scott’s own campaign barely raised any money between March 15 and July 1 — a mere $8,000. (He’s raised only $80,000 for the entire campaign cycle.) Not surprising, since he has said he won’t campaign or fundraise until the pandemic is over… which may be sometime in 2024, by the looks of things.

But while he is refraining from the dirty business of politics, his campaign is humming right along. It is deficit spending, mainly to pay Optimus Consulting, a D.C. firm that has done all his strategerizing and media buys in each of his gubernatorial campaigns, a cool $114,500 for its services this year. That represents the bulk of total Scott spending.

Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association waits in the background to inject however much money is needed to ensure a Scott victory. So far, the RGA has funneled $126,000 into its “independent PAC,” A Stronger Vermont. It can easily pump in enough money to overwhelm all other bankrolls in the race, as it did in 2016, when Scott first ran for governor. The RGA spent more than $3 million that year, and effectively knocked Democrat Sue Minter out of contention with a late-summer/early-fall ad blitz. That’s chump change by RGA standards.

(The RGA’s expenditures are purely independent of Scott’s campaign, but paid for so much TV time in 2016 and 2018 that Scott barely had to run any ads of his own.)

And now we know where Scott’s Democratic challengers stand money-wise. It’s not a pretty picture.

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VT Dems go trolling for candidates

So, according to VTDigger, the Vermont Democratic Party is conducting a poll to see how well Attorney General TJ Donovan and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman would do in hypothetical matchups with Gov. Phil Scott.

I have no inside information on this, but here’s how it looks from my view.

It’s a sign of desperation and a waste of money. Also, Donovan and Zuckerman are still Hamletting it up.

Let’s take desperation first. I’m assuming that party leaders initiated this poll, not Donovan or Zuckerman. If so, it says that leadership — whatever their public protestations — fears what will happen if former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe is the party’s nominee, because (a) they think she’d lose badly and (b) might actually hurt their prospects in legislative races.

Well, it’s really (b) they’re most concerned with. The experiences of Peter Clavelle, Scudder Parker, Gaye Symington, Sue Minter and Christine Hallquist show that the party is perfectly content to toss a nominee off the sled when the wolves are closing in.

They’d much rather go to battle in 2020 with Donovan or Zuckerman leading the charge. Which is understandable, given that Holcombe is untested in the political arena and virtually unknown outside policy circles. But when party leaders are willing to spend scarce party resources — at a time when they’re not exactly swimming in money — they reveal a certain unseemly desperation. This is a Hail Mary pass: If the poll shows unexpected weakness for Scott, or significant strength for one of the two Hamlets, then one or both might be enticed to make a run.

Of course, the poll is unlikely to provide that kind of evidence. Scott has done nothing to diminish his popularity — nor have legislative Dems done anything to push him in that direction — and his two potential rivals are much less well-known statewide. (Those of us inside the #vtpoli bubble vastly overestimate the public’s engagement in state politics.) Donovan lacks a policy profile outside of law enforcement, and both men lack any significant record outside of their jobs.

Both are better positioned than Holcombe to overcome Scott’s lead because they are statewide officeholders, and that’s by far the best launch pad for a gubernatorial bid. (The last six Vermont governors were either statewide officeholders or top legislative leaders before assuming the top job.) Both also have better fundraising potential: Donovan because of his political lineage and national connections, and Zuckerman as the state’s leading Bernie Bro.

Right now, I doubt their poll numbers would be much different from Generic Democrat. What they do have is a chance at being competitive, after running a vigorous statewide campaign for a solid year. So I don’t expect the poll will provide any real insight. Hence, waste of money.

And if Donovan and Zuckerman, in the middle of very successful political careers, lack the self-confidence to make that decision without a marginally meaningful poll, then they’re really not cut out to carry the banner.

TJ, We Hardly Knew Ye

Return with me now to the halcyon days of 2012, when Peter Shumlin was still popular and a fresh-faced young prosecutor from up Burlington way took on the seemingly impossible task of challenging Vermont’s Eternal General Bill Sorrell in the Democratic primary. Sorrell had held the office of attorney general since 1997 and had been repeatedly re-elected, as is our general custom with statewide officeholders other than governor. Many believed that by 2012, ol’ Billy was long past his sell-by date. Others thought he wasn’t particularly qualified in the first place, but those people are obvious malcontents. (Like, for instance, the late Peter Freyne.)

Ultimately, thanks to a last-ditch infusion of cash on Sorrell’s behalf from the Democratic Attorneys General Association, TJ Donovan’s bid to unseat the incumbent came up just a little bit short. Sorrell won the primary by a puny 714 votes out of more than 41,000 cast.

But Donovan was widely hailed for his chutzpah and, more to the point, for very nearly pulling it off.

So let me ask you this. Whatever happened to that brave, headstrong young man with a limitless political future?

I mean, there’s A Guy named TJ Donovan around. In fact, he became AG in the 2016 election, after Sorrell retired. He looks a lot like the ambitious young pol of 2012, but as time goes by, he’s acting more and more like his predecessor.

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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.

Senate Tweaks Doomed Program

Well, huzzah. The State Senate has approved a change in the public financing law. Currently, a candidate who wants public financing has to wait until February 15 to say or do anything campaign-related. Given the current fashion in extra-early campaign launches, that’s a significant handicap.

Tne new bill would start the clock “as soon as a privately financed candidate raised or spent up to $2,000 on a gubernatorial or lieutenant gubernatorial campaign — up to one year before Election Day,” reports Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.

This solves the too-late problem without ensuring ever-earlier campaign launches. Good idea.

However, it’s quickly becoming apparent that the deadline is far from the biggest problem with the public financing system. The biggest problem is the skyrocketing cost of statewide campaigns and the paltry sums on offer through the public funding system.

Currently, a gubernatorial hopeful who earns enough small donations gets to (a) keep that money and (b) get enough public dollars to bring their campaign total to $450,000. For lieutenant governor, the figure is $200,000.

And those are absolute limits. Not a penny more, from any source. Not even a mention in a party’s email blast.

These days, that’s simply not enough to support a competitive campaign.

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The VPR Poll: the gubernatorial race

Big day in Vermont politics. VPR commissioned a wide-ranging poll from the Castleton Polling Institute. During today’s “Vermont Edition,” there was a painstakingly thorough (read: boring) examination of the presidential results, which contained no real surprises*. What I was most interested in is the gubernatorial race: as far as I can tell, this is the first real poll taken since the field took its current shape.

* Bernie’s whompin’ Hillary; Trump has a big lead over Rubio and Kasich, with Cruz in fourth.

The poll also contains some striking findings on issues, which I’ll address in a separate post. Preview: several “hot-button” issues don’t seem to concern the electorate very much.

First, a note on the gubernatorial numbers. All respondents are included in both the Democratic and Republican races. The question is: “Of the two candidates running for the [Democratic/Republican] nomination for Governor, which do you prefer?” Republicans got to weigh in on the Democratic race, and vice versa. So the results may be a little funky — although to be honest, the Dem/Repub/Indy breakdowns aren’t substantially different from the overall numbers. Still, take these results with a small grain of salt.

Topline for the gubernatorial findings: Phil Scott is way out in front, and will be difficult to catch.

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