Politically Thinking: Beating Dubie — tough but possible

Vermont’s primary election is just two months away. Whichever of the five Democratic gubernatorial candidates wins the primary will face a challenging campaign against Republican Brian Dubie. Dubie can start his general election campaign over the summer, while the Democrats battle each other in the primary. With more than $800,000 already on hand, Dubie should be able to raise $1.5 million. The eventual Democratic nominee will need to catch up to Dubie in fund-raising.

Dubie will benefit from ticket-splitting voters who will send Democrats Patrick Leahy and Peter Welch back to Washington, but who are wary about giving Vermont Democrats control of both the legislature and the governor’s office. National polls show that Republicans are more likely to turn out in November than Democrats, and Vermont may resemble the nation in this regard. Also, the public mood favors candidates who want to restrain government spending.

Yet Dubie is not unbeatable. Vermont has been trending Democratic for 20 years. Leahy will be a strong candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket, and will help Democrats lower down the ballot. Dubie does not have either the public speaking skills or the deep knowledge of policy issues that Jim Douglas has demonstrated throughout his governorship. Finally, Dubie is the most socially conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate in a decade.

Over the next few weeks, we will learn more about the relative standing of the five Democratic candidates, as campaign finance reports and new polling data become available. At this time, Deb Markowitz and Doug Racine appear to be leading the Democratic field.

Markowitz can point to polls that show her doing better against Dubie than any of the other Democrats. The July financial reports will likely show that she has raised the most money of the five Democrats. Markowitz has the resources to pay for a large primary field operation, which can make up for her having relatively fewer organizational endorsements than several of the other candidates.

Racine has received three important endorsements, from the Vermont AFL-CIO, the Vermont National Education Association, and the Vermont State Employees Union. With public employees making up a large percentage of the Democratic primary electorate, the NEA and VSEA endorsements will help Racine in a low-turnout primary. Also, Racine’s work on health care bills will help him with primary voters who want the state to become a more active player in the delivery of health services.

Matt Dunne could potentially join Markowitz and Racine in the top tier of candidates, if the financial reports and polls show that he has been able to translate his enthusiasm and innovative policy ideas into contributions and grass-roots support. Dunne may be well-positioned for a final push, but he needs to remain close to Markowitz and Racine in July to finish ahead of them in August.

So far, Peter Shumlin’s campaign appears to be lagging in fund-raising and organizational development. Polls also indicate that Shumlin has the highest negatives of any of the Democratic candidates. While Shumlin is likely to do well in Windham County, his home base, he does not seem to be a top-tier contender in vote-rich Chittenden, Washington, and Windsor counties.

Susan Bartlett has impressed those who have attended Democratic candidates’ forums with her wide-ranging knowledge of state policy issues, especially the budget. Yet she has not been able to close the name recognition gap between herself and the other Democratic candidates. However, if one of the other Democrats is elected governor, Bartlett could end up holding a senior position in that person’s administration.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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