Eric Davis: Phil Scott's vulnerability: 'Where's the beef'

With the election for Vermont’s next governor less than a year away, I now believe that both the Democratic and the Republican gubernatorial primaries in August will be competitive. I had always thought that the Democratic primary would be a close election. However, I now see the Republican primary between Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman to be a competitive race as well.

While Scott still has the advantages that go with incumbency — high name recognition and high favorability — Lisman is turning out to be a stronger candidate than I gave him credit for in a column I wrote earlier this year. Lisman has been working hard since announcing his candidacy, trying to meet with as many Republicans and independents as he can around the state, appearing at candidate forums, putting out press releases and meeting with local and statewide media, and beginning to talk about specific policy ideas, especially regarding education finance and the state budget.

Scott has been relatively quiet this fall, but that will change once he officially kicks off his campaign in early December. Lisman’s challenge will force Scott to “up his game” in early 2016, requiring the lieutenant governor to spend more time campaigning, fund-raising and developing policy ideas than he may have thought would have been necessary a few months ago.

If Scott has a vulnerability, both in the GOP primary and in the general election, it could well be the old question that Walter Mondale asked of Gary Hart when both were seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984: “Where’s the beef?” Will Scott be able to rely on affability and familiarity to get him through to Election Day, or will voters, the press, and Lisman demand more specificity from him on a wide range of issues than simply the claim that Vermont is “unaffordable?”

I am interested to see how the two candidates’ geographical bases of support develop in the Republican primary. Lisman should do well in more affluent communities with a fair number of Republicans, such as his hometown of Shelburne, neighboring Charlotte, and resort towns such as Stowe, Manchester and Londonderry. Scott should do well in central Vermont, which was his former constituency in the state Senate, and in traditionally Republican small-town areas in northern Vermont.

The Republican primary could end up being decided by voters in two other areas of the state. First, there are communities that will likely vote for the Democratic nominee in November, but also have enough Republicans to make a meaningful contribution to the GOP primary electorate. These areas would include Chittenden County suburbs such as Colchester, South Burlington, Williston and Essex, as well as some of the larger communities in Windsor County, such as Woodstock, Hartford and Springfield.

The second important area in the Republican primary will be southwestern Vermont: Rutland and Bennington counties. Recent statistical analyses have shown the southwest is now the region of the state where the economy is facing the biggest challenges. Will voters in these struggling communities, where unemployment and underemployment is high and population and the workforce have been declining, stick with the familiar figure of Scott, or will they vote for Lisman as an “outsider” candidate?

In the end, Scott’s incumbency advantages may well be enough for him to win the Republican primary comfortably, especially if turnout is low. But, in a year in which voters want to shake things up and support political newcomers, the appeal of an articulate, knowledgeable and well-funded candidate such as Bruce Lisman cannot be discounted.

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

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