Eric Davis: Vermont elections may lack drama
The next general election in Vermont will be just over a year away. While the presidential election will be one of the most high-intensity campaigns the nation and the state will have ever seen, there may not be many closely-contested races at the statewide level.
For one thing, there will be no U.S. Senate campaign in Vermont in 2020. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s term runs until 2022, and Sen. Bernard Sanders’ until 2024.
The last presidential election year in which there was no U.S. Senate race in Vermont was 2008. In that year, Barack Obama defeated John McCain in Vermont by a popular vote margin of 67 to 30 percent. Jim Douglas was re-elected to what turned out to be his final term as governor, receiving 53 percent of the vote in a three-way race in which Independent Anthony Pollina and Democrat Gaye Symington each received 22 percent of the vote.
The 2020 election in Vermont could turn out to be quite comparable to 2008.
Obama’s 67 percent in Vermont in 2008 represents a modern-era high for a Democratic presidential candidate in the state. President Obama received 66 percent of the Vermont vote in 2012, while Hillary Clinton dropped to 55 percent in 2016, largely because of the large number of votes cast in the last presidential election for third-party and write-in candidates. Will the Democratic candidate in 2020 exceed the 67 percent of the vote Obama received in Vermont in 2008?
Governor Phil Scott has not made any formal announcement of his political plans for 2020. He has told the State House press corps that he will have such an announcement in the spring, about the time the legislative session ends. Scott will almost certainly be a candidate for a third term in 2020. If he were not planning to seek re-election, he would likely have made that announcement by now, in order to permit possible successors to begin organizing and fundraising for a gubernatorial campaign.
Assuming Scott runs in 2020, he would have to be considered a favorite to extend incumbent Vermont governors’ streak of winning re-election, a streak that now extends back to 1964.
The results from a recent public poll measuring voter approval and disapproval of all 50 state governors were released by Morning Consult last week. This poll found 64 percent of Vermonters questioned approving of Scott’s performance, with only 23 percent disapproving. Interestingly, the only governors with approval ratings higher than Scott were Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland, both of them, like Scott, centrist Republicans in otherwise strongly Democratic states.
So far, no well known Vermont Democrats with track records of having won elections seem interested in running for governor in 2020. There was a flurry of activity and speculation surrounding Attorney General T.J. Donovan earlier this year, in which Donovan was said to be “considering” a gubernatorial candidacy in 2020, but this flurry seems to have died down in recent months.
In my view, Donovan will likely continue as Attorney General until there is an open-seat campaign for either governor or U.S. Senate, in which case he would be one of many candidates in a crowded Democratic primary. Such an open-seat race could come relatively soon, should Scott decide to leave office after six years, or should Leahy decide to retire in 2022, after a political career of 56 years – eight years as Chittenden County State’s Attorney, and 48 years as a United States Senator.
In the meantime, Rebecca Holcombe of Norwich, who served as Secretary of Education in the cabinets of both Governors Shumlin and Scott, has announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor next year. The filing deadline for the August primary is not until May 28, so other gubernatorial candidates may well announce over the next six months.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.