Seven Takeaways From Vermont's 2020 Election | Off Message

Seven Takeaways From Vermont's 2020 Election


Outside a polling place in Stowe on Election Day - FILE: KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Kevin McCallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Outside a polling place in Stowe on Election Day
Is it over yet?

At the current rate, the counting of presidential ballots from Pennsylvania to Georgia may never end. But here in Vermont, Election Day came and went without incident. The results of most races — with the exception of a recount or two — were apparent by late Tuesday night.

So now that the dust has settled, what should we make of it all? To help answer that question, Seven Days came up with seven takeaways from the 2020 election.

Scott Absolutely Crushed It
Gov. Phil Scott speaking to reporters after voting Tuesday in Berlin - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Paul Heintz ©️ Seven Days
  • Gov. Phil Scott speaking to reporters after voting Tuesday in Berlin
It's hard to overstate the magnitude of Gov. Phil Scott's victory.

The Berlin Republican won 248,353 votes, or 67 percent of those cast, according to unofficial results from the Secretary of State's Office. That's more than two and a half times the 99,200 votes his Progressive/Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, received. And, amazingly, it's 5,469 more than even Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden picked up in true-blue Vermont.

To put Scott's win in historical context, the last time a gubernatorial candidate earned a greater share of the vote was in 1996, when Democratic governor Howard Dean won with 71 percent, according to records kept by the Secretary of State's Office. This year's record-breaking turnout helped Scott collect a greater number of votes than any gubernatorial candidate in state history, besting the record of 213,523 Dean set in 1992.

Scott did well in every corner of the state. Zuckerman won a majority of the vote in just four towns and cities: Burlington, Brattleboro, Putney and Marlboro. In the Queen City, where any Democrat must dominate to be competitive statewide, Zuckerman bested Scott by just 55 votes: 10,600 to 10,545. Meanwhile, Scott won 83 percent of the vote in Barre Town, 80 percent in Milton and 74 percent in Colchester.

Remarkably, he did it without campaigning — at least in the traditional sense. Though his live-broadcast coronavirus briefings made him a regular presence in many voters' lives since March, he held few campaign events, hired only two campaign staffers and spent just $307,276 on the whole enterprise — including $53,453 for advertising — according to a report filed last week with the Secretary of State's Office.

So what does it mean, man? For one thing, Scott's not going anywhere soon. If he chooses to run for a fourth term in 2022, Democrats will be hard-pressed to recruit a top-tier challenger. Why bother?

Legislative Leaders Took it on the Chin
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson
In January 2017, four Vermont politicians took new jobs running state government: Scott, Zuckerman, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Come January 2021, only Scott will remain.

Zuckerman and Ashe both forfeited safe seats for a chance to move up the political ladder. Both failed. Johnson, meanwhile, became the first speaker to lose a reelection race since Ralph Wright in 1994. (She plans to seek a recount.) Another party leader, Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P-Middletown Springs), who chairs the House Progressive Caucus, also lost his seat.

Despite the churn at the top, not many other incumbent legislators were defeated on Tuesday. Only six of 150 House members and one of 30 state senators were sent packing. Though Republicans made gains in both chambers, both will still be dominated by Democrats.
When the new legislature convenes in January, it appears likely that its top three leaders will all be women. Molly Gray, who won the race for lieutenant governor on Tuesday, will serve as president of the Senate. Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) is the only announced candidate for Senate president pro tem. And two likely contenders for the House speakership are Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) and Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), herself a former majority leader.

Molly Gray Has Arrived
Molly Gray at a press conference in August - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Molly Gray at a press conference in August
If there was any remaining doubt, Gray established herself Tuesday as one of the brightest stars of the Vermont Democratic Party. After defeating Ashe, Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) and activist Brenda Siegel in the August primary, the 36-year-old went on to dispatch Republican travel executive Scott Milne — a two-time statewide candidate — in the general election.

Gray's margin of victory was not insignificant. She defeated Milne by 25,767 votes, or 50 to 43 percent, and she picked up nearly twice as many votes as Zuckerman did in his race.

Nobody runs for lieutenant governor just to serve as lieutenant governor. It's a stepping stone to higher office, and Gray is now a stone or two ahead of her potential rivals.

Meanwhile, the (mostly male) rising stars of yesteryear — Zuckerman, Ashe, former House speaker Shap Smith, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and even Gray's own boss, Attorney General T.J. Donovan — all appear diminished. Look for Gray, Balint and Krowinski to top any list of potential candidates for Congress.

Calling it Quits?
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders
Speaking of Congress, how long will Vermont's three-member delegation remain intact? And will Democrats' apparently underwhelming performance in Tuesday's congressional races make it more likely that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) retire?

If Democrats were to win the Senate — and, mind you, they still could — Leahy would be in line to chair the powerful Appropriations Committee and Sanders would chair the Budget Committee. Now both may have to remain content as ranking members. House Democrats had also hoped to expand their majority but appear likely to see it diminished.

Politico reported before the election that Sanders was interested in serving as Biden's secretary of labor. But with the Senate likely to be closely divided, it would seem less plausible that Biden — should he prevail in the presidential race — would risk a safe seat, even though Scott has said he'd temporarily fill a Sanders vacancy with a "left-leaning" independent who would caucus with the Democrats.

Leahy and Welch are up for reelection in 2022, Sanders in 2024.

Wither the Progs?
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Chris Pearson
Earlier this year, it seemed possible that two Progressive pols — Zuckerman and Ashe — could win the top offices in the state. They didn't, and their longtime friend and ally, Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden), nearly lost reelection during the August primary. Then Chesnut-Tangerman fell.

In Tuesday's state Senate races, Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) and Pearson came in fifth and sixth in the race for Chittenden County's six Senate seats — behind four Democrats. Pearson won just 33,444 votes, compared with 50,974 for first-time Democratic candidate Thomas Chittenden.

Then, of course, there's the Progfather himself. Sanders ran a solid campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, but for the second cycle in a row, he fell short.

Progressives have at least some reason for optimism. Despite a slew of retirements in their House caucus, they elected four new members and maintained seven seats in the chamber. And, thanks to Democratic/Progressive Auditor Doug Hoffer, they still hold one statewide office.

Biden > Clinton
Then-vice president Joe Biden in Burlington in 2016 - POOL: GLENN RUSSELL
  • Pool: Glenn Russell
  • Then-vice president Joe Biden in Burlington in 2016
Four years after Donald Trump won the presidency, even more Vermonters support him.

The Republican president picked up 112,559 votes this year, according to unofficial results, up from 95,369 in the 2016 election. That may simply be a function of higher voter turnout this time around. Trump won virtually the same share of the vote in 2016 (30.3 percent) as he did in 2020 (30.4 percent).

Biden, however, did far better Tuesday than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That year, the former secretary of state won 178,573 votes in Vermont, close to 57 percent of the total. Four years later, Biden won 242,797, or 66 percent.

The difference has to do with the number of Vermonters who picked a third-party option. In 2016, 5.8 percent wrote in Sanders, 3.2 percent went for Libertarian Gary Johnson and 2.1 percent chose Jill Stein of the Green Party. In 2020, Vermonters largely stuck with their Democratic and Republican options. The highest third-party showing came from Libertarian Jo Jorgensen, who won just 1 percent of the vote.

Get Out the Vote
Secretary of State Jim Condos - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Secretary of State Jim Condos
Perhaps the most impressive outcome of Tuesday's election was its historic voter turnout.

More than 372,235 Vermonters cast ballots, or 74 percent of the state's registered voters, according to unofficial results. Turnout was up at least 16 percent over 2016. It shattered the previous record of 326,822, set in the 2008 presidential election.

The increase is likely attributable, in part, to the state's decision to mail ballots to every active, registered voter. By Monday evening, 260,142 ballots had been returned to municipal clerks. That would account for close to 70 percent of the ballots cast in the election.

This year's mail-in ballot protocols, which were prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, are set to expire after the election. Whether lawmakers will retain or expand the system is an open question — but it's hard to imagine they will mess with success.