Vermont’s primary election held on Tuesday produced no real surprises other than an extraordinarily high voter turnout, which was 31 percent higher than the previous record. That record was set in 2016 when voters were highly energized and Sen. Bernie Sanders was on the presidential ballot. By contrast, this year’s campaign season was a relatively quiet affair, with campaigns generally limited and fewer-than-usual incumbents stepping down.
The high turnout is even more noteworthy in that the political polarization that has plagued much of the rest of the country is largely absent from Vermont. The state’s electorate seems less eager to see wholesale change than to see democracy thrive while supporting incremental changes until the state emerges from the pandemic.
Governor Phil Scott has made himself as available as any other governor during the pandemic with biweekly marathon press conferences since March. The state’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Mark Levine, “Vermont’s very own Dr. Fauci,” as he is sometimes called by supporters, appears by his side at those events, lending credibility and reassurance that science is the guiding force in pandemic-related decisions.
The governor’s transparency and strong leadership has paid off. A recent poll found that an astonishing 97 percent of Democrats approve of Scott’s job in managing the pandemic. Democratic primary winner and incumbent Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman faces a virtually insurmountable challenge in his race against Scott.
The Lieutenant Governor race was the most closely watched and hotly contested statewide race. Relative newcomer and fresh face Molly Gray won by a decisive eleven point spread over Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe. The fact that Gray had not voted in ten years was disclosed late in the campaign, but for unknown reasons it was largely ignored by the media and was therefore a non-factor in the election.
The lieutenant governor position is largely ceremonial although it positions one for a future gubernatorial race and can be a useful “pulpit” to advance a few key priorities of the office. Gray has promoted broadband expansion as a policy priority but has been thin on details on that and other proposals.
Two Chittenden County senators – Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram – entered the race for lieutenant governor, hence relinquishing their seats. The two new Chittenden County senators are likely to be Democratic primary winners Kesha Ram and Thomas Chittenden. Ram is a former state representative and served on the Ways and Means committee. Ambitious and outspoken, she is consistently active on social justice issues. Thomas Chittenden is likely to be a moderate voice in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) is the likely successor to Ashe as President Pro Tem. Balint has shown friendliness towards economic development initiatives and is a member of the Senate Economic Development Committee. As a senator from southern Vermont, she is likely to focus the legislature’s efforts on business development outside of Chittenden County.
Senator John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, missed the filing deadline to run as a Democrat and had little success as a writeâ€‘in candidate on Tuesday. Insiders say that he hoped to run as an independent all along, and it looks like that is what will happen. Rodgers has been a key swing vote on many energy and environment issues, and an outlier among Democrats on energy policy, particularly renewable energy initiatives and ridgeline wind.
Democrats are almost certain to retain an overwhelming majority in the Senate.
Representative Kitty Toll, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, did not seek reelection. Her Washington-Caledonia seat was a contested race with newcomer and dairy farmer Henry Pearl of Danville winning the Democratic primary. The new Chair of House Appropriations is not known yet but Representative Mary Hooper, the current Vice Chair, is a likely candidate.
More significantly perhaps than Toll’s departure, the remaining money chairs, Representative Janet Ancel Dâ€‘Calais of the House Ways and Means Committee, Senator Anne Cummings D-Washington of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senator Jane Kitchel D-Caledonia, of the Senate Appropriations Committee remain in place and are very likely to retain their posts. Ancel has always been one of the most outspoken critics in the body about economic development incentives.
Representative Jean O’Sullivan, Vice Chair of the House Commerce Committee, lost her seat in the primary to a progressive challenger. O’Sullivan is labor friendly but generally supported economic development spending.
The general election is unlikely to be a traditional contest between the Democrats and Republicans. Although Gov. Scott appears to face little difficulty in reelection, the Republican Party has struggled to put together a viable ground game for other races. They continue to rally behind priorities that have been proven to be unpopular with the majority of Vermonters. This has played out in the polls with the GOP losing numbers with each election cycle. The upcoming campaign season will more likely be a race between the left and the left-of-left. Most of the Democrats who won their primaries have a fairly easy season ahead. Those who face off with Progressives will have work to do. The state continues to move further away from center and November will only increase that shift.