Lt. Gov. Phil Scott speaks as Republican lawmakers look on during a Statehouse press conference.
Riding momentum from an Election Day that saw them gain 11 seats in the legislature, Republican leaders said they will press Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin to scrap Vermont Health Connect and focus on pocketbook issues in the coming weeks.
But they acknowledged their plans are in doubt until their nominee for governor, Scott Milne, finishes a campaign that he is threatening to take into January.
Unofficial tallies say Milne lost by 2,000 votes. He has refused to concede the race to Shumlin. He says he may seek a recount or ask legislators — who must elect a governor since neither candidate cleared 50 percent — to select him, despite his second-place finish.
Republican leaders made it clear they will allow their members to vote however they wish if Milne seeks a contested vote. Traditionally, lawmakers have rubber-stamped the candidate with the most votes, regardless of party, but Milne says he may try to rally support, especially from legislators whose districts gave him a plurality of votes. Milne this week said he is "confident," he will find a way to oust Shumlin.
During a Statehouse press conference, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said that if he were in the Senate, he would vote for the candidate who won the popular vote. “I would vote for the person with the highest tally,” Scott said.
But other Republican leaders indicated they would vote for Milne in the constitutionally mandated secret ballot in January.
“You represent your constituents first. That’s the way you vote. Milton [went] two to one for Scott Milne. I will be voting for Scott Milne,” House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) said.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), whose constituents preferred Milne on Election Day, indicated he would likely vote to follow their lead.
“I have a very strong statement from my constituents and that what’s weighing heavy on my mind now,” Benning said.
Republican leaders also said they would not try to convince Milne to back down from seeking a contested vote and recount, to avoid putting themselves in a potentially tricky political situation. In fact, they said they have had little communication with Milne, who received almost no support from the state party.
In an interview, Scott said Milne has not consulted with him since Election Day. “I don’t know who he is consulting with,” Scott said. “I don’t know who is in his inner circle. I’m sure he has one.”
Benning said he's not in that group either. He has been in touch with Milne, but declined to offer details. He was uncertain whom Milne is relying on for advice. “We are looking to him for some guidance,” Benning said in an interview. “I am looking to him for some guidance.”
Vermont’s constitution calls on the legislature to select the governor, lieutenant governor or treasurer from among the top three vote-getters when none take more than 50 percent of the popular vote.
That scenario has occurred in 23 previous gubernatorial races — most recently when Shumlin narrowly defeated Republican Brian Dubie in 2010. In all but three instances, the legislature chose the candidate who won a plurality. The last time it didn’t was in 1853, according to the Associated Press.
Milne this week cited the precedent of 1976, in which the lieutenant governor candidate who lost the popular vote was selected by legislators.
He has indicated he will give more information about his plans in the coming days.
Regardless of the outcome of the governor's race, Republicans said they will offer a bill in the opening days of the session that would shut down Vermont Health Connect, a federally required online marketplace for insurance, and force Vermont to use the federal exchange, as 27 other states have done. Vermont Health Connect's website has never functioned properly and has been shut down for a month for maintenance.
Their bill would also revive Catamount Health, Vermont’s old state-subsidized plan for providing health care to low-income residents, Turner said.
Republicans said they will push to have a bill passed and signed in the opening days of the session, before the governor’s budget address in early January.
“We have no doubt there will be bipartisan support for that bill,” Turner said. “Our goal is to make the ACA and the federal exchange work for Vermonters.”
“I find it hard to believe the governor doesn’t have that as a possible solution at this point,” Scott said, of transferring to the federal exchange. “That may be a conclusion he reaches on his own. It’s a possible solution that seems obvious to us.”
Republicans acknowledged they are still the minority, but said voters, in almost unseating Shumlin and boosting their ranks in the legislature, had issued a call for change on Tuesday.
“We’re thinking the way they are,” Scott said. “A lot of Vermonters across the state on the campaign trail talked about struggling to make ends meet. We are utilizing [our] voice to address their concerns. We are willing partners. We want to help. People in Vermont are screaming for relief, and we’re here to say we heard you.”