- Tim Newcomb
Vermont has a national reputation as a reliably "blue" — aka Democratic — state, but the reality on the ground is more complicated. For example, the state's best-known politician, the yuuuugely popular Sen. Bernie Sanders, ran for president as a Democrat. But the Bern is actually an independent: That's how he's identified himself since he became mayor of Burlington in 1981. Just to complicate things: The Progressive Party grew up around and claimed Sanders, but he has never run for office with a "P" next to his name.
Independents of all stripes are a staple of Vermont's political scene, as you'll see in this guide. A few of this year's crop of candidates for legislative and statewide office are running under the Libertarian or Green Mountain Party banners. But most pols are representing one of Vermont's three major parties: Republicans, Democrats and Progressives. This is a quick-and-dirty guide for voters who haven't been paying close attention to Vermont politics.
Newcomers to Vermont might be surprised to learn that it was a reliably "red" state for more than 100 years — Republicans dominated the legislature, the governor's office and the congressional delegation starting in the mid-1800s. That changed around the time when Democrat Phil Hoff eked out a 1,300-vote victory in the 1962 governor's race.
Since then, the state has switched colors. The Republicans have fielded a few popular statewide officeholders — Jim Jeffords was a Republican senator until he famously left the party in 2001; Jim Douglas served as treasurer, then governor from 2003 to 2011; Phil Scott has held the governor's seat since 2017.
But Vermont's pro-choice gov signed meaningful gun control legislation in 2018, has ridden his motorcycle in LGBTQ pride parades and declined to support president Donald Trump, which means he's often at odds with many of the rank and file in his own party.
The GOP seems to be struggling to recruit new statewide leaders. Political gadfly and perennial candidate H. Brooke Paige is the GOP choice for both secretary of state and treasurer. Paige actually won the Republican primaries for auditor and attorney general, too — but stepped aside to let Richard "Rick" Morton and Michael Tagliavia take his place in those races.
Liam Madden, the Republican nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives, said he didn't want the party's nomination, though he ended up accepting it; in the event he comes out on top in November, he doesn't plan on caucusing with other House Republicans. As a result, the state party is not officially supporting his candidacy. It's not supporting Ericka Redic, Madden's Libertarian opponent, either. She ran in the Republican primary and lost to Madden, and the party doesn't back failed primary candidates.
In other words, the "R" label in Vermont might not mean what you think, beyond a preference for lower taxes and less governmental regulation. If you don't know much about the candidates, check out their websites or watch a debate before filling in the oval.
Though Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, never officially joined Vermont's Progressive Party, the Progs trace their roots to his historic tenure as mayor of Burlington. According to its website, this self-described "people-powered party" to the left of the Democrats sees itself as "independent of the two corporate-owned parties." It aims to promote "economic, social and environmental justice" and seeks elimination of "our society's deeply rooted racism and white privilege," as well as nuclear weapons.
Burlington was, and is, its stronghold, hence the nickname "the People's Republic of Burlington." The party controlled the mayor's office for most of the '80s, '90s and '00s. Democrat Miro Weinberger won in 2012 and broke the streak, but Progressives currently hold five of 12 seats on the city council. In 2021, the Prog candidate for mayor, then-city council president Max Tracy, came within 129 votes of unseating Weinberger.
Starting from that Burlington base, the Progs established a statewide party apparatus in 2000. In 2002, Anthony Pollina ran for lieutenant governor as a Progressive and won 25 percent of the vote, "the largest percentage of any third party candidate for statewide office in the country at the time," the party website notes. Pollina later became a Progressive state senator from Washington County.
But like many of his fellow Progressives, Pollina sought the endorsement of both Progressives and the "corporate-owned" Democrats. Indeed, nearly all of the Progressive candidates on this fall's ballot carry that dual endorsement. The order of the letters is significant; the first one signals the candidate's primary party allegiance.
Come November, Auditor Doug Hoffer, who has a D/P next to his name, is running for his sixth term; former lieutenant governor David Zuckerman hopes to reclaim his lite-gov seat with a P/D label; and D/P Brenda Siegel is challenging Phil Scott in the governor's race.
Dems are currently Vermont's dominant party. In the last legislative session, they held 21 of 30 seats in the state senate, not counting the hybrid pols. The party held 92 of 150 House seats as well as the statewide offices of lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general and auditor, not to mention two of the three congressional seats. The third belongs to Sanders.
The Dems' party platform doesn't look all that different from the one drafted by their Progressive frenemies. Its core commitments are to equity, prosperity for all, environmental justice, health care for all, justice and community safety, public education, and democracy, in that order.
But there's a moderate, mainstream wing of the party and a more progressive-leaning faction. The primary race for U.S. House between Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint revealed the distinction. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and former Democratic governors Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean backed Gray, while Balint drew support from Sanders.
Still, Balint's got just one party affiliation next to her name: Democrat.
Quiz: Which Party Platform Is It From?
Can you identify which party claims the following statements as part of its platform? All selections are taken verbatim from the websites of Vermont's Democratic, Progressive and Republican parties.
- The ______________ Party stands in solidarity with all of those who are oppressed and state our belief in the beauty of all life. Our party remains fully committed to ensuring freedom for all; fighting for the right of all Vermonters to achieve their full potential, unrestrained by unnecessary government intervention.
- Will proactively work to eliminate institutionalized racism in our workforce, government, and law enforcement, and personal racial bias in ourselves.
- The ______________ Party recognizes that systemic and institutional racism exists throughout our state and affirms that Black Lives Matter. We acknowledge past and present inequities in our party, our state, and our country, and strive to dismantle the systems of oppression that continue to marginalize valued members of our community.
- We believe in doing everything in our power to address, mitigate, and even reverse human induced climate change.
- Eliminate the use of non-essential single-use plastics and regulate unnecessary wasteful practices that litter our rivers and other natural waterways.
- We support environmentally and economically responsible efforts to lower the cost of energy for every Vermont citizen and business. Sound energy policy demands a careful balance between the economy, environment and competitive rates to foster economic growth and financial stability.
- Vermont ______________ cherish our proud history of providing safe and healthy communities. To these ends, we support: care for vulnerable children, the elderly, the sick, the poor, and those unable to care for themselves.
- It is the responsibility of government to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of every person.
- Roll back the regressive Republican tax cuts for the very wealthy and large corporations. Pass measures that address the corrosive effect of excessive wealth.
- We believe Vermont needs a progressive tax system where wealthier Vermonters pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than low to moderate income Vermonters. We believe in reducing our reliance on property and other regressive taxes.
- Emphasize vaccination as an essential element of disease prevention and care.
- We support respect for the individual rights of all people regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, ability, religion, socioeconomic status, political affiliation or vaccination status.
Answers: 1. Republican, 2. Progressive, 3. Democratic, 4. Progressive, 5. Democratic, 6. Republican, 7. Republican, 8. Progressive, 9. Democratic, 10. Progressive, 11. Democratic, 12. Republican.