This story was reported by Paul Heintz, Tyler Machado and Andy Bromage
For weeks, the Democratic contest for attorney general seemed too close — and too unusual — to predict. Tuesday night brought no swift resolution.
At the end of primary night — with 245 of 258 precincts reporting — Attorney General Bill Sorrell held a narrow 619-vote lead over challenger T.J. Donovan, according to the Associated Press. But with more than 40,000 voters casting ballots, neither campaign seemed fully prepared to declare victory — or defeat.
“This has been a really long six months and I’ve said several times this is more a marathon than a sprint,” Sorrell told a crowd of supporters at Burlington’s Courtyard Marriott after emerging for the first time at 10:15 p.m. “We’ve got about a mile or so more to run, and I’m feeling great.”
Standing beside a screen projecting the night’s promising but uncertain results, Sorrell said, “We’ve got a while to wait, but that’s okay. Because between being 600 or so votes up and 600 or so votes down, I choose option A.”
Greeting supporters next door at the Burlington Hilton, Donovan told Seven Days that with a dozen precincts left to report, he “owed it to everybody to see what the votes are.”
But Donovan did not sound hopeful he would pull out a win.
"It's gonna be tough," he said, adding that he would be “unlikely” to call for a recount — as a candidate within two percent of a winner is entitled to do — given the apparent size of Sorrell’s lead. "We've worked hard and I want to see this thing through. Somebody had us down 20 points a week ago.”
The AG's primary was the most expensive for that office in state history and the first competitive race for Vermont's top law enforcement job since Sorrell took office in 1997. Buoyed by $184,000 in super PAC advertising, Sorrell may well have fended off a challenge from an ambitious and well-organized young challenger who relentlessly hammered Sorrell's 15-year record during the five-month campaign.
For the second time in two years, Democrats faced the prospect of converging for a pre-scheduled "unity rally" on Wednesday with no clear winner. And with Republican AG candidate Jack McMullen waiting in the wings, Dems will be anxious to put the primary behind them and get the general election started.
With more than 40,000 primary ballots cast, voter turnout — while low compared to the 73,000 who voted in the 2010 Democratic primary for governor — was far better than the 30,000 some were predicting for Vermont's second August primary. The turnout rate was roughly 10 percent.
According to figures compiled by Vermont’s Secretary of State, which were not as up-to-date as the AP’s, Donovan took more than 6100 votes in populous Chittenden County, compared with Sorrell’s 5377. Donovan also topped Sorrell in Rutland City and Rutland Town 494-436 — and in Barre City and Barre Town 467 to 344.
But Sorrell pulled in strong numbers from Brattleboro (840 to Donovan’s 453), Montpelier (646 to Donovan's 517), Rockingham (425 to Donovan's 309) and a trio of Orange County towns — Randolph, Strafford and Thetford — whose turnout was likely driven by a competitive senate race there. In those three towns, Sorrell won 751 votes to Donovan's 542. Most importantly, Sorrell consistently outperformed Donovan in smaller towns throughout the state.
At the Hilton, Donovan's campaign party was a high-energy affair, with a DJ spinning Sheryl Crow, Dire Straits and other classic rock tunes. Supporters erupted in cheers when periodic vote counts showed Donovan on top. State Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), a Donovan supporter, clutched two speeches printed on blue paper — one for if Donovan won, another if he lost.
"I don't have a speech for a draw," remarked Ram, as the race looked increasingly like it would go into extra innings.
Shortly after 10 p.m., Donovan entered the hotel ballroom to address his cheering supporters. "I don't know where this is going to go tonight, but I'm not ready to concede," Donovan said.
After that, Donovan thanked his wife, mother, state Rep. Joey Leddy Donovan (D-Burlington), and "the best governor in the history of the state of Vermont, Phil Hoff."
Sorrell’s campaign party, meanwhile, was a decidedly more low-key affair. Featuring soft strains of jazz on the P.A. and more wine-sipping than beer-guzzling, the crowd politely clapped whenever their candidate inched ahead in the vote tally. When Sorrell finally appeared at the end of the night, his supporters went wild.
In thanking them, Sorrell tacitly acknowledged that many in the Democratic Party establishment backed his opponent.
“I want you to know that in a fight like this, you find out who your friends are,” he said. "And I will never, ever forget what you’ve done for me and what you’re doing for me right now. I am so proud of the campaign that we have run.”
In the race to represent Chittenden County in the State Senate, all four incumbent Democrats running for reelection — Sens. Tim Ashe (9115 votes), Ginny Lyons (8825), Sally Fox (8523) and Philip Baruth (6836) — won slots on the ballot this November. Filling out the six-candidate Democratic slate are two Senate newcomers: former House member David Zuckerman of Hinesburg (7596) and Williston Selectboard member Debbie Ingram (5036). Former House member Peter Hunt of Essex (4576) failed to secure a berth on the ballot, while Burlington City Councilor Ed Adrian — who dropped out of the race a month ago — still managed to collect 3615 votes.
The Democratic slate will go on to face seven other candidates in the general election, including Republican incumbent Sen. Diane Snelling and former Progressive Burlington mayor Bob Kiss, who is running as an independent.