Politically Thinking: Shumlin faces re-­election pitfalls

Recent Vermont history shows that governors lose support the longer they stay in office. Jim Douglas’ vote share declined from his first re-election in 2004 through his last re-election in 2008, and Howard Dean faced challenging campaigns in his last two re-elections, in 1998 and 2000. The same trend may be starting for Peter Shumlin.

As this year’s legislative session ended, a number of Democrats were surprised at the extent to which Shumlin resisted proposals from House and Senate Democrats to restructure the income tax in ways that would affect primarily upper-income households. In several press conferences, Shumlin said that he would not support any tax increases except on gasoline, even though the proposed income tax changes would benefit most middle-income households.

Majorities of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses, and much of the Democratic base among Vermont voters, would like to see the state spend more on programs for low- and moderate-income Vermonters than Shumlin is willing to support, and would like to see the state’s tax system move in a more progressive direction. Shumlin is not part of this consensus. The issues on which he built his political career are marriage equality, closing Vermont Yankee, and single-payer health care, not expanding social welfare programs and progressive taxation.

Conflicts between the governor and the Legislature over fiscal issues will continue in the 2014 session. While the majority of Vermont voters may be more sympathetic to the governor’s position than to that of the Democratic legislative leadership, Shumlin does have to worry about the Democratic base being less enthusiastic about him in 2014 than it was in 2012 and 2010. There is also at least a possibility that the Progressive party will run a candidate to Shumlin’s left in 2014.

Recent news stories about the governor’s real estate transaction with an East Montpelier neighbor do not help Shumlin’s political position. The details of this transaction are complex, and the governor has provided a plausible explanation of how he plans to modify the transaction going forward. However, the story fits a larger narrative of Shumlin as a wealthy man who sometimes seems to go out of his way — as with his reaction to the income tax reform proposals — to protect the interests of a small number of high-income Vermont households.

Shumlin also faces upcoming challenges in health care. Some progressives are concerned about what they see as a lack of progress in developing a financing plan for a single-payer system, which is due to the Legislature in early 2015, just 19 months from now. Closer at hand, the new health benefit exchange, known as Vermont Health Connect, will go into operation on Jan. 1. More than 100,000 Vermonters who work for businesses and other organizations with fewer than 50 employees, or who buy insurance in the individual market, must obtain their insurance through Vermont Health Connect starting in January.

The administration is working hard with private-sector partners such as Blue Cross Blue Shield to set up the exchange. The risk for Shumlin is that implementation is not smooth — that businesses and consumers have difficulty navigating the Vermont Health Connect website; that call centers have long waiting times; and that premiums, co-pays and deductibles for some consumers will increase. The latter is a particular concern for current participants in the Vermont Health Access and Catamount Health plans.

Finally, Shumlin needs to make sure that his responsibilities as chair of the Democratic Governors’ Association — recruiting Democratic gubernatorial candidates and raising money for them — do not distract from his duties as governor of Vermont.

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

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