- Luke Eastman
It's been 20 years since a state senator lost a bid for reelection in Chittenden County.
This year, challengers argue that the turmoil of a global pandemic and the sweeping racial justice movement may break that streak by attracting new, energized voters to the Democratic primary.
Among the signs that have given the insurgents hope: the size and strength of the field, a spike in absentee ballot requests and the newcomers' head start in campaigning.
"I would be very nervous if I was an incumbent state senator in the Chittenden district," said Rep. Dylan Giambatista (D-Essex Junction), who in January was one of the first to announce his Senate candidacy.
The size of the six-seat, at-large district normally makes it extremely difficult for newcomers to gain the name recognition and raise the campaign cash needed to defeat an incumbent. But this year, the departure of two incumbents, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) to run for lieutenant governor set off a scramble to replace them.
Nine Democratic challengers have joined the four remaining incumbents in the August 11 primary race. Because Democrats typically dominate Chittenden County elections, in recent years winners of the party's primary have been elected in November. Just two candidates are on the Republican primary ballot.
Conventional wisdom holds that the incumbents — Democrats Ginny Lyons and Michael Sirotkin; Phil Baruth, who runs as a Democrat/Progressive; and Progressive/Democrat Chris Pearson — should be safe, effectively leaving the challengers to fight for the two open seats.
"My guess is the four incumbents are OK, and they finish one, two, three, four," said Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor. "The contest is among the remaining candidates for the last two seats."
Candidates see it differently.
"Anybody that issues any kind of prediction about this race is a complete idiot," said Baruth.
While incumbents do enjoy name recognition from repeated campaigns and news coverage of their work in the legislature, this year feels very different, said Baruth, who has served in the Senate since 2010.
"We're in a time where people are looking for fresh voices, and there is huge grassroots energy out there," Baruth said. "If it's going to balance out in any year, this is probably it."
Some observers cite the unprecedented spike in absentee ballot requests as evidence of an unusually engaged electorate, which can be a sign that voters are eager for a change.
By Tuesday, 32,499 voters in Chittenden County had requested absentee ballots, compared to 1,545 requests made by the same date during the 2018 primary. That could indicate broader interest in a political contest that typically attracts a smaller crowd of dedicated voters.
"Normally, an August primary can be a real snoozer," said Erhard Mahnke of Burlington, a longtime affordable housing lobbyist who entered the race shortly before the May 28 deadline.
But the surge in ballot requests may portend a groundswell of new voters, drawn by the turmoil in Washington, D.C.; the intensity of the Black Lives Matter movement; and anxiety about the pandemic and its economic fallout.
"Maybe this is the year that incumbency isn't the golden ticket," offered David Scherr of Burlington, an assistant state's attorney in his second run for a Senate seat.
Adam Roof, who entered the race in May after losing a March reelection bid for his Burlington City Council seat, echoed the sense that new voters are looking for a new direction.
"When you have folks showing up who don't typically vote in August, that's where I think maybe an incumbent could get knocked off," he said.
Some candidates receive daily lists from the Secretary of State's Office of people who have requested absentee ballots. The unusual number of absentee ballots gives challengers an opportunity to reach more voters, said Chris Di Mezzo, spokesperson for the Vermont Democratic Party.
"You normally don't have such a large quantity of data [or know] exactly who's going to turn out to vote," Di Mezzo said.
Challengers' ability to contact these likely voters with mailings, phone calls and email blasts helps blunt the name recognition advantage incumbents enjoy, Di Mezzo said.
But it's an expensive way to campaign.
The large number of absentee ballot requests has blown the $7,000 budget that candidate Thomas Chittenden had set for mailings to voters. The three-term South Burlington city councilor entered the race in May and said he now expects to spend two and a half times his original budget for mailers.
"I've been prioritizing getting something in the mail as quickly as possible so that when [voters] get the ballot from their town clerk, they're also getting something about me," Chittenden said.
Mail is a key way to get one's message out in a crowded field at a time when COVID-19 has put the kibosh on traditional campaign events, debates and the door-knocking Chittenden had planned to do, he said.
Newcomers who had planned to out-hustle their competition in those ways have found themselves challenged to connect with voters, said Kesha Ram, a former state representative from Burlington and an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 2016.
"If you're hardworking, I think that takes you very far in Vermont — usually," said Ram, who joined the Chittenden Senate race in January. "But right now, people are exhausted, and they are just looking for direction."
For this reason, she said, she expects endorsements to play an outsize role in the campaign, because they can help voters cut through the noise. She has collected a raft of endorsements, including from Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) and EMILY's List, a national political organization committed to electing pro-choice women.
EMILY'S List is also backing June Heston, a nonprofit consultant from Richmond. Heston hopes endorsements will also help her gain ground on incumbents. She's won a rare endorsement from former governor Howard Dean.
Heston's late husband, Mike, had a long career as a state trooper and served on Dean's security detail. The Vermont National Guard commander died in 2018 of pancreatic cancer after three tours of duty in Afghanistan, where he was exposed to pollution from open burning of hazardous waste on military bases. His death spurred his widow to push for legislation making it easier for Vermont veterans to sign up for a national registry that tracks people exposed to the burn pits. The successful effort inspired her to get more involved in government, she said.
The endorsements and rise in absentee ballot requests give Heston hope that she can break through against established incumbents and challengers with better name recognition.
It is far from clear, however, that the spike in ballot requests will result in an influx of new primary voters, said incumbent Pearson.
The rise in requests for absentee ballots could just reflect how easy the Secretary of State's Office made it to get one by returning a postage-paid postcard. The high-profile effort was aimed at drastically reducing the number of people voting in person at the polls during the coronavirus pandemic.
While it is relatively easy to request a ballot, it takes time and energy to understand the differences among the 13 Democratic Senate candidates and to choose six — especially when voters have so much else on their minds, several candidates said.
Heston figures people who vote from home by mail will have more time to research candidates, instead of hurriedly selecting six names they recognize while in a polling booth.
"When that ballot comes to your home, you can get on your computer and start looking things up and find out what people stand for," she said.
Chittenden said he can't even remember who all the candidates are, let alone what they stand for.
Only "the slimmest margin" of the thousands of voters Giambatista has called can name even one of the senators who represent them, let alone whom they'd prefer, he said.
That tells him the race is "not dinner table conversation" and candidates, even ones with experience in political office, must work hard to make their case to voters.
It also confirms the widely held belief that the Chittenden Senate district — the only at-large, six-seat district in the nation — is unwieldy and overdue for a breakup. The district includes all of the county's communities except Colchester and Huntington.
Last year the legislature passed a law limiting the size of electoral districts to no more than three seats starting in 2022. When the 2020 U.S. Census is released, a state commission will recommend a way to break up Chittenden County into smaller units to choose senators. The legislature will draw the final lines.
How that might shake out is anyone's guess, especially if legislators make decisions designed to protect their own seats, which they undoubtedly will, said Davis, the retired Middlebury professor.
Nonetheless, "this might very well be the last time that voters in Chittenden County have to choose candidates for six seats," Davis said.
The other candidates in the Democratic primary are Steve May of Richmond, a clinical social worker, and Louis Meyers of South Burlington, a physician at Rutland Regional Medical Center. Both are highlighting their knowledge of the health care system as a reason voters should support their candidacies.
On the Republican ticket, the candidates are Ericka Redic of Burlington, an accountant, and Tom Chasteny of Milton, the owner of a heating and cooling business.
Some incumbents lament that the length and intensity of this year's legislative session delayed their campaigning and put them at a disadvantage. All were involved in drafting key COVID-19 and economic recovery bills; Sirotkin, Lyons and Baruth chair Senate committees, while Pearson is cochair of the Vermont Climate Caucus.
"While we have the advantage of experience and name recognition, it is clear that many of the newcomers have been campaigning and raising large sums of money while we have been doing our jobs and have had far less time to campaign," Sirotkin said in an email.
As a result, Pearson said he feels "way behind" some other candidates in the race but hopes voters recognize the work he has been doing on their behalf during the pandemic.
"Being a candidate in these circumstances is a wild ride," Pearson said. "I'm hopeful, but I don't take anything for granted."