Tuesday’s Democratic primary race for governor goes into the history books as one of the most competitive and closest with five excellent candidates — four of whom had near-equal support across all sectors of the state. With Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin leading Sen. Doug Racine by just 182 votes at 25 percent of the vote total, and Sec. of State Deb. Markowitz just 500 votes behind Racine with 24 percent support (Matt Dunne had 21 percent), Democrats must ask which strategy among the four will best appeal to voters this November and try to figure out just how the party can beat a well-financed Brian Dubie.
Let’s assume Shumlin will keep his lead with 18,239 votes compared to 18,057 votes for Racine. As the candidate, Shumlin will have to temper his message in the general election significantly. The notion that he took on tough issues like gay marriage and closing Vermont Yankee appeals to party liberals more than it does to the general population. He’ll marshal change, all right, but is the direction of that change too unsettling or risky for the general public to endorse? Fine-tuning that message will be critical.
Shumlin will also need to work hard in the areas of the state in which he did poorly — particularly in Chittenden and Franklin counties, where Dubie will have a hometown advantage (Essex Junction) and where the bulk of the state’s population lives. On the other hand, Shumlin has an advantage in the state’s underserved south — and could even drum up support for a gubernatorial candidate to finally represent that area.
Shumlin would also be well advised to tweak his antagonistic stance toward Vermont Yankee (‘I took the tough stance to close VY and I’ll make other tough calls in the future’) and turn the conversation toward the positive in terms of how he’ll replace that lost source of energy and how he’ll grow jobs doing it. Similarly, in the conversation on future job growth, he’ll need to get more specific on how his policies will help generate new jobs — while letting Republican Brian Dubie cling to the old idea of maintaining a nuclear power plant that is falling apart with an operator that has repeatedly lied to the public about safety issues, and trying to generate new jobs through the private sector through tax cuts — a policy that Gov. Douglas and Dubie have championed for the past eight years (as did former president Bush) with devastating consequences.
Shumlin could really distinguish himself from Dubie on education. With Dubie and Gov. Douglas harping for the past eight years about high spending, high taxes and the need to cut programs, Shumlin has acres of room to be a proponent of better educational outcomes to meet the demands of the knowledge-based economy of the future. Vermont’s public education system is better than most states and it could become the driving economic force for Vermont with the right approach. Telling a positive story about education, instead of the negative mantra we’ve heard for the past eight years, would be refreshing by itself. But twin it with a solid program tied to economic growth and job training and you have a vision to believe in and support — despite what it costs. As a state we need to embrace what is by now obvious: excellent public education systems, K-16 and beyond, will be the economic drivers for future jobs in global (and local) knowledge-based job market. Weakening our school systems through more cuts only hurts the state’s efforts to attract tomorrow’s jobs and to provide our youth with a leg-up on the competition from neighboring states and other countries.
As for the delay in announcing a winner among Democrats, we agree with the Racine camp that being certain of the vote count and waiting for the official declaration of the winner from the Sec. of State’s office is more important that rushing to judgment today or tomorrow. The primary was moved up from its traditional time slot in mid-September, so the party is actually well ahead of the game compared to previous years. In short, getting it right is more important than offending political supporters of other candidates because of a rush to declare a winner.
The positive news for the Democrats is that the turnout was much higher than expected with more than 70,000 Vermonters casting a vote for one of the five gubernatorial candidates. (Expectations had been closer to 50,000.) What that means in real terms is that the huge lead in money by Dubie is somewhat countered by the name recognition gained by the winning Democrat during a primary that caught the attention of the entire state — whether they voted or not. That exposure over the past three months — including more than 60 debates across the state and lots of door-to-door visits, as well as establishing a well-oiled grassroots organization — is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in name exposure and message, and certainly does not mean the Democrat will be starting from scratch in the race against Dubie.
On the contrary, it will be Dubie’s challenge to get his message out to the general public — on addressing the rising cost of health care, anemic job growth and why what he and Gov. Douglas have followed for the past eight years has failed and what he’ll do differently, on the continual loss of dairy farms and what he’ll do differently, on Lake Champlain’s pollution and why — after $100 million spending during the past eight years — it has improved less than a percent, and how he’ll change the Douglas administration’s critical approach to education — with a Democratic challenger countering his comments at every turn.
There’s no denying Dubie’s political war chest is big ($750,000 plus with more to come from conservative political groups across the country), but a candidate’s money can only spin bad programs for so long before the public catches on. Unless Dubie departs radically from the Douglas agenda, the public might not be as ready to embrace more of the same stuff they’ve seen for the past eight years as the pundits seem to believe.
Of the other primary races, Rep. Chris Bray’s race for the lieutenant governor’s seat came within a whisker of success — 52 percent to 48 percent — a good showing for a two-term representative who was up against a former party chairman and 11-year veteran of the House who had better name recognition across the state. What it demonstrates is that Bray has a future in statewide politics if he wants it and if he can stay close enough to the political scene to make a difference in any particular area of public interest, such as his highly touted food-to-plate initiative.
In the meantime, Steve Howard will face a tough campaign against Republican Phil Scott, who is a salt-of-the-earth Vermonter with good political instincts and significant bipartisan support.
Progressive Doug Hoffer ran a strong race against Democrat Ed Flanagan and won handily, 58 percent to 42. He now faces the unpredictable Democrat-turned-Republican Tom Salmon in the general election. Hoffer goes into the race the underdog facing the incumbent, but his experience working on statewide audits and his lack of political ambition beyond this post — plus his singular focus on providing statistics and analysis the Legislature and administration can use on which to base good policy — gives him a solid platform on which to base his challenge.
The match-up in the Secretary of State’s race will see two qualified candidates and seasoned politicians, Democrat Jim Condos and Republican Jason Gibbs, go head-to-head in a race in which the public can’t lose. Both are excellent choices and offer different avenues to improve one of the most important areas of the state bureaucracy.
Finally, of the local races, Amy Sheldon’s close write-in challenge of state Sen. Harold Giard speaks well of her first run for public office and puts Giard on notice for future races to not miss that all-important filing deadline for candidates wanting to run under their party’s label. It was an innocent mistake on Giard’s part, but it nearly cost him the right to represent the Democratic party in the upcoming general election. It should also be a wake-up call to Giard that many county residents either don’t know his record well or are unaware of his work in the Senate. That’s an important lesson to learn now, as he’ll face a tough fight in the general election against Orwell banker Mark Young. Giard would do well to stay in campaign mode from now right through the November election.
Angelo S. Lynn