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Mr. Popularity: Scott Stands Alone on Bad Night for Republicans


Published November 7, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 23, 2018 at 3:43 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
  • Sophie MacMillan
  • Gov. Phil Scott

Postelection hot take: Gov. Phil Scott is a popular guy.

The first-term Republican won reelection with relative ease on what was otherwise a bleak night for the Vermont Republican Party. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) sailed to victory. In fact, the Associated Press called Sanders' win at precisely 7 p.m., the moment the polls officially closed. Democrats also made gains in the Vermont House, perhaps even clinching a veto-proof majority.

"The news out of Vermont this election was clear," Scott said during a victory speech at the South Burlington DoubleTree. "We can disagree. We can debate. We can do it with passion. But in this state, we can do it respectfully."

With more than eight out of 10 precincts reporting at press time Tuesday night, Scott was leading Democratic nominee Christine Hallquist 54 percent to 40 percent.

"It's been an amazing campaign," Hallquist said in a concession speech at the Hilton Burlington. "I've shed a lot of tears of joy for the people that have approached us over the last several days." 

Turnout was unusually high for a non-presidential election. As of press time, it appeared likely that Vermont would beat its 2006 record for most ballots cast in a midterm.

Welch spoke about national politics when he addressed Democrats at the Hilton. "The question is, are we in it together, or is it winner take all and you're on your own?" he asked. "That is the simple question that America is deciding across this land tonight."

Sanders entered the room to a rousing ovation and told the crowd that representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate has been "the honor of my life." He then turned to the national scene.

"We have a president who is a pathological liar and is doing something that no president in my lifetime has ever done," Sanders said. "He is trying to divide us up based on the color of our skin, based on where we come from, based on our religion, based on our gender and based on our sexual identity ... All over this country the American people, led by the state of Vermont, are going to stand up and fight back."

Scott held on to the governorship, but Republicans were locked out of the other five statewide offices. Progressive/Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan, Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce, Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos and Democratic/Progressive Auditor Doug Hoffer all won with little trouble. Pearce, Condos and Hoffer faced nominal opposition, as their Republican challengers put little effort into their campaigns.

Donovan prevailed over outgoing Rep. Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury), who mounted a serious, credible campaign on the issues but could not overcome his late start and a lack of money.

The biggest statewide disappointment for Republicans was House Minority Leader Don Turner's (R-Milton) failure to defeat Zuckerman. Turner raised an impressive amount of money, had plenty of support from his party and positioned himself as Scott's partner in representing a moderate Republican agenda. The VTGOP also believed Zuckerman was far enough to the left to be potentially vulnerable.

It still wasn't enough. Turner's defeat again raises the question: How can Republicans compete statewide with a candidate other than Phil Scott?

Early warning signs for Hallquist came from reliably Democratic precincts such as Waterbury, South Burlington, Springfield and Hinesburg, where she lost to Scott in a wave of ticket-splitting. Just about everywhere, Hallquist was well behind the pace set by Democratic legislative candidates.

It had always been an uphill battle for Hallquist. She entered the race late, with no experience in electoral politics and very little name recognition. She struggled to raise money, even after a tsunami of worldwide publicity about her status as the first openly transgender person to lead a major party's ticket. No national liberal or Democratic organizations spent significant money on her behalf.

Democrats entered Tuesday hoping to gain a veto-proof majority in the House so that they could bypass the Republican governor. They needed a net gain of at least seven seats to get to the magic number of 100 Dems and Progs.

Things were looking good for the Dems as of press time. They had won eight seats currently held by Republicans, plus two seats currently occupied by independents. Notable losers included Reps. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington), Paul Poirier (I-Barre City), Warren Van Wyck (R-Vergennes) and Fred Baser (R-Bristol).

Whether or not the Dems emerge with a supermajority, they will certainly strengthen their ranks. That will make it harder for Scott to pursue a hard line on taxes, budgets and school spending. In his first term he issued 14 vetoes, and all were sustained with the unified backing of House Republicans. In his second term, a stronger legislative opposition could significantly alter the balance of power in Montpelier.

Lessons Learned

Taking part in political campaigns is an intense experience, whether you're a candidate, staffer or volunteer. As this year's election was in its closing days, I asked a number of candidates and workers — including some first-timers and some old hands in new roles — what they will take away from 2018.

Many found Vermont politics to be invigorating. "There's a different level of politeness," said Vermont Republican Party executive director Jack Moulton, who came here in March from New York State. "There's still civility left in Vermont politics, which is refreshing."

David Glidden, spokesperson for Hallquist's gubernatorial campaign, is a lifelong Vermonter with experience in New York politics.

"I've always known what an open political culture we have, but it's surprising how accessible people are," he said. "When I try to reach legislators, I call their number and they pick up. That's not a thing in any other state."

Brittney Wilson, another Vermont native and the campaign manager for Gov. Scott, agreed that the state's politics are different, but she added that the national scene is having an effect. "It seems like there's a lot more voter apathy," she said. "Washington is so consuming that people are turned off and disengaged."

For at least one first-time candidate, the process was discouraging. "I can't stand campaigning," said Rep. Ed Read (I-Fayston), who was appointed by Scott in 2017 to fill a vacancy. "It's a self-absorbed, self-promoting operation. It has little to do with the issues." Read, who owns two small businesses, added that the demands of running make it difficult for people like him to serve.

Andrew Perchlik is experienced in public policy circles as director of the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund. But he was never a candidate until his run this year for state Senate in Washington County as a Democrat/Progressive. Perchlik discovered that Vermonters don't pay much attention to state politics. "People didn't know there was a primary," he said of the August election. "They didn't know their incumbents. People were energized, but mostly about [President Donald] Trump and national politics."

For Alex Farrell, Republican candidate for state Senate in Chittenden County, campaigning was a mixed bag. He experienced a lot of positives, but "not everyone is friendly," he said. "You're in the public eye. People will say or write things about you. It's a harsh reality."

As executive director of nonprofit Emerge Vermont, Ruth Hardy has taught other Democratic women how to run for office. This year she made the move herself, running for state Senate in Addison County. "I found myself hearing voices of our trainers in my head," she said, referring to her time campaigning door-to-door. "I realized, 'Oh, that's why they told me to do this!'"

Sara Coffey is an Emerge alum who ran for a House district that includes Vernon and Guilford — "the Southeast Kingdom," as she put it. "I was terrified when I learned that door-knocking was the key," the Democrat said. "But that's been the most important part of my campaign. I've had great conversations."

During her years as president of the Vermont-National Education Association, Martha Allen was a Statehouse fixture. This year she became a candidate for the first time, as the Democratic nominee for the House in the far northeast corner of the Northeast Kingdom — "the largest geographic district in the state," she noted.

Allen didn't look forward to going door-to-door, but she found the experience rewarding — in fact, essential. "If I hadn't been knocking on doors, I couldn't truly represent the district," she said.

"People want to be heard and listened to," added Hardy. "It's amazing and humbling."

And sometimes a bit dispiriting. "I've met a lot of lonely elderly people. They're excited to have someone come to the door and listen to them," Hardy observed.

The lesson I've learned: Reporting on politics can turn into something like sportswriting. It's all about who's winning and losing, who's got the best message or the biggest war chest. During this campaign, I reported on several House races. There, I found a place where politics is a matter not of money or slogans, but of real connection. Candidates actually know their communities firsthand. And, as Coffey put it, "I'm carrying their stories with me."

Media Notes

Those of you who still subscribe to the Burlington Free Press might have picked up your Wednesday edition expecting to see results from Tuesday's election.

If so, you were disappointed. "All of our election results will be provided online, and not in the Wednesday printed newspaper," executive editor Michael Kilian announced in a November 2 note to subscribers.

His rationale? Today's readers expect to get their news on the spot. They don't wait for the print edition anymore. The Free Press is merely meeting that demand by focusing on digital content, Kilian argued.

Plausible enough. But there's a corporate mandate behind the move. According to Ken Doctor of the Nieman Journalism Lab, all newspapers in the Gannett chain were ordered to put their papers to bed by midevening. The corporate overlords allowed a bit of wiggle room past the usual early evening deadline, but not enough to publish complete results.

In other words, Kilian's bosses gave him lemons, and he's trying to sell us lemonade.

Besides, these short-term tactical shifts don't change the underlying reality of the business: Advertising revenue continues to plummet for dailies such as the Free Press, and digital revenue falls far short of making up the difference.

Kilian is right that most people go online to get what he calls the "news of now." With his limited staff, he can best serve readers by concentrating on web content. The problem is, few publishers have figured out a sustainable digital business model, even as they seem to be trying to kill their ink-and-paper outlets.