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Won Way: Questions and Answers About Vermont's Gubernatorial Election


Published November 16, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott at Thunder Road in Barre - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Lt. Gov. Phil Scott at Thunder Road in Barre

Perhaps the only thing worse than modern campaign reporting is postelection analysis. For the past week, the same sages who misread the electorate throughout the 2016 presidential race have been busily explaining what we all missed. Thanks, guys.

There's been plenty of that in Vermont, too. Those who weeks ago thought our hotly contested gubernatorial contest was too close to call are now claiming that Republican governor-elect Phil Scott's 52 to 43 percent victory over Democrat Sue Minter was "inevitable." Everything Scott did was brilliant, our local sages tell us, while every decision Minter made was fatally flawed.

Me? I try like hell to avoid predictions because I know I'm usually wrong — even after the outcome is clear. So rather than sum up Vermont's 2016 gubernatorial election in one tidy narrative, I thought I'd pose a few questions — and answer them as best I can:

I know you said you wouldn't sum up the race "in one tidy narrative" — whatever that means — but I don't have time to read the rest of this column, so can you please sum it up in one tidy narrative?

Sure! I thought you'd never ask. Throughout the fall, I vacillated between two competing theories. A: In a presidential election featuring Donald Trump, Vermont's unusually high turnout would carry down-ballot Democrats, Minter included, across the finish line. And B: As in every open gubernatorial election since 1962, Vermonters would pick their next governor from the party out of power — in this case, Scott.

The results suggest that Theory B was a better bet. After six years of Democratic rule, perhaps it was time for the pendulum to swing the other way.

So what happened to Theory A?

Turnout was, indeed, high. More than 320,000 Vermonters cast a ballot, according to the Secretary of State's Office — second only to the nearly 327,000 who voted in 2008. And Vermonters voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump's 29.8 percent in Vermont appears to be his worst showing in the country.

But Vermonters, as they often do, eagerly split their tickets. Of the 185 towns and cities that backed Clinton, 132 also supported Scott.

Got any other brilliant theories?

Yes, in fact. It's a tired cliché, but 2016 was indeed the year of the outsider. Sure, Scott's been in office for 16 years, but he's never had a lick of power. Montpelier Democrats were the establishment — and plenty of Vermonters seemed willing to blow it up.

"This was a year of rewarding rhetoric and strong positions, not a record of accomplishment and competence," says one wise Democrat, arguing that the theory helped explain Sen. David Zuckerman's (P/D-Chittenden) primary-election victory over House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown).

So it was "inevitable" that Scott would win?

Um, no. As Scott campaign adviser Jason Gibbs puts it, "If there was a political headwind that we didn't face, I don't know what it was." That may be an exaggeration, but Gibbs has a point.

Scott's name appeared on the ballot in the most liberal state in the country, just below the least popular GOP presidential nominee in party history. A deeply popular president and vice president campaigned for his opponent — as did Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), fresh off his own run for president. And because Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was up for reelection, the Vermont Democratic Party was flush with cash and talent.

In other words, Scott couldn't afford too many mistakes.

Like, what kind of mistakes?

Scott's most brilliant move was his public condemnation of Trump, long before the orange-hued menace won the Republican nomination. And unlike many of his peers, Scott stuck to his guns — avoiding the waffling that may have doomed Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

"He affirmed in the eyes of a lot of Vermonters that he was the type of New England Republican that he was campaigning to be," says Democratic operative Bill Lofy, who advised the pro-Minter super PAC Our Vermont. "It made it more difficult to nationalize this election."

Why couldn't Sanders save Minter?

That Vermont's junior senator won 5.6 percent of the presidential vote when he wasn't even on the ballot shows just how popular Sanders is in his home state. According to one Republican involved in the gubernatorial race, "The only time we got nervous was when they brought out the big guns."

But Sanders' magic touch isn't necessarily transferable. Just ask Democrat Matt Dunne, who got walloped in the gubernatorial primary despite mimicking the senator's every move. What voters seem to appreciate about Sanders is his authenticity — and only the candidate himself or herself can provide that.

"All of our decisions were guided by the idea that whatever we do should be guided by who [Scott] is as an individual," Gibbs says. "Ultimately, that made the authenticity of the campaign far greater than a campaign that is micromanaged around polling data and overproduced in a theatrical sense."

So was Minter just a bad candidate?

No. For a politician who had never run for office outside her tiny House district, Minter more than held her own. She was solid on policy, stayed on message, raised money like a champ and maintained her composure even when the death of five local teens in October rocked her family and community.

Also, remember when Minter clobbered Dunne and fellow Democrat Peter Galbraith in the Democratic primary? My, you people have short memories!

Ah, now you're saying she was the best candidate ever.

No. Minter was overly scripted and struggled to connect with regular voters. She had plenty of policy prescriptions, but what exactly was her message?

Wait a second. That sounds like what everyone's saying about Clinton. Aren't you just being sexist?

Quite possibly. As Gov. Peter Shumlin told Vermont Public Radio this week, there's a reason no woman has ever won the presidency and only one has served as governor of Vermont: "We hold them to a different standard when we're hiring a chief executive."

Speaking of Shumlin, wasn't it his fault that Minter lost?

I mean, there's a reason the Republican Governors Association spent millions on television advertisements linking Shumlin's former transportation secretary to her "mentor," as the bobblehead ads put it.

"People have a pretty negative view of the incumbent governor," says Doug Racine, a Minter supporter and two-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate who served in — and was fired from — the Shumlin administration. "I think people were looking for somebody who they felt they could trust."

Wasn't this all about name recognition?

Perhaps. Prior to 2016, Scott had won three statewide elections and five Senate races in populous Washington County. Minter? Four House races.

How, then, to explain Zuckerman's victory over three-time statewide Republican nominee Randy Brock? Unlike Brock, the lieutenant governor-elect loves nothing more than pressing the flesh — and he's been at it for a long time.

"If you really look at the two winning candidates and the two losing candidates in each race, Phil and I have either been serving or getting to all corners of the state for many more years than either of our opponents," Zuckerman says.

So did Scott win a "mandate" for his economic agenda, as he claimed last week?

Voters clearly sent a message that they wanted Scott to govern, but they otherwise picked Democrats. The party picked up two more seats in the Senate and held on to its strong majority in the House.

"I think one can read too much into Phil's election," Speaker Smith says. "It may be as simple as, he's been on the statewide scene for years. People know him and are comfortable with him and decided they'd give him a shot."

Well, I'm just glad little old Vermont runs its elections the old-fashioned way — with a high-minded debate focused on the issues.

Nice try. Scott and Minter may choose to remember the race that way, but this was actually a proxy war between corporate-funded super PACs run by the RGA, the Democratic Governors Association and a horde of special-interest groups.

Vermont's legislative races remain small-town affairs, but its gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races went national a long time ago. The final count will surely show that this was the most expensive election in state history — brought to you by self-funding millionaires, California donors and generous corporate treasuries. The nasty and misleading TV ads they financed did nothing to elevate the debate.

So, please, spare me the Vermont exceptionalism.

Media Notes

Trump's election poses a grave threat to the First Amendment and the free and vibrant press it was designed to protect. As the president-elect prepares to take office, we as journalists must redouble our efforts to hold the powerful to account, defend dissent and gird against the spread of state-sponsored truthiness.

Here at Seven Days, we have spent the past five years growing our newsroom into one of the finest in the state. We are now in the midst of another expansion, hiring new reporters, new editors and — wait for it — a new political columnist.

Last month we brought on staff writer Katie Jickling — a former freelancer for the Herald of Randolph, Valley News and VTDigger.org — to cover Chittenden County. She'll replace staff writer Alicia Freese, who is joining Terri Hallenbeck in our Statehouse bureau. We also welcomed back Kymelya Sari, a 2015 graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and former reporting fellow for Seven Days. Her coverage of Vermont's growing New American community has already proved indispensable in the dawning of the Age of Trump.

Sasha Goldstein, a former breaking news editor for the New York Daily News, joined the staff in June. In the newly created position of deputy news editor, he is working alongside news editor Matthew Roy to wrangle our growing team. Candace Page, a 32-year veteran of the Burlington Free Press, has been working for Seven Days as a freelance editor since May. She will now play a more formal role, helping me direct our legislative and political coverage.

Finally, after four and a half years writing this political column, I plan to surrender Fair Game at the end of the year. My hope is to trade the day-to-day hustle of the political beat for more in-depth investigative reporting at Seven Days — and to seek out the big stories that, too often in Vermont, go under-covered.

This column will be in good hands. After a long search, we have hired veteran journalist and prolific blogger John Walters to become the paper's fourth political columnist since the late, great Peter Freyne. A veteran of New Hampshire Public Radio and Montpelier's the Bridge, Walters is probably best known to Vermonters as a blogger for Green Mountain Daily and, more recently, his own site, the Vermont Political Observer.

Walters will bring to Seven Days an engaging voice, sharp instincts and a provocative approach to political coverage. He will chart his own course in these pages, but I trust that he will deliver the journalistic rigor and independent analysis our readers have come to expect.

Walters will start contributing next month to our news and politics blog, Off Message, and take over the column in January. Hallenbeck will cover Fair Game for the next couple of weeks while I'm on vacation. I'll return in December for a few final columns before the end of the year. As Sanders might say: The struggle continues.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Won Way"