Politically Thinking: Progressive party losing its clout

Vermont’s Progressive Party may not be able to maintain its major party status for the 2011-12 biennium. State election law defines a “major political party” as one that has a local committee in at least 15 towns or cities, and has received at least 5 percent of the vote for one of the six statewide offices.
Major parties are allowed to nominate their candidates through primary elections. Several media organizations, such as Vermont Public Radio, also use major party status as the criterion for deciding which candidates to invite to participate in broadcast debates.
The Progressives will certainly meet the requirement to be organized in 15 towns. Whether any of their statewide candidates can clear the 5 percent threshold is an open question.
There is no Progressive candidate for governor this year. Martha Abbott won the Progressive nomination in the primary, then withdrew from the race to avoid splitting the anti-Republican vote with Democratic nominee Peter Shumlin.
There are also no stand-alone Progressive candidates for secretary of state and auditor.
Democratic auditor candidate Doug Hoffer has been endorsed by the Progressives, but votes cast for Democrat Hoffer cannot count toward the 5 percent requirement for the Progressives to maintain major party status.
The Progressives have nominated candidates for the other three statewide offices: Marjorie Power for lieutenant governor, Don Schramm for treasurer, and Charlotte Dennett for attorney general. One of these candidates must receive at least 5 percent of the vote on Nov. 2 for the Progressives to maintain major party status for the next two years.
These candidates will depend on exposure through forums such as debates on Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television to get their message out to the voters in the short time remaining before Election Day. They will also hope to be invited to appear on radio talk shows and to be the subject of at least one article in the print media.
The absence of high-profile Progressive candidates for statewide offices shows how the Progressive Party has declined in recent years. The energy of Vermont’s progressive activists is increasingly directed toward the Democratic Party. For example, many progressive activists, for whom single-payer health care and shutting down Vermont Yankee are very important issues, are working on Peter Shumlin’s campaign.
Anthony Pollina, probably Vermont’s best-known Progressive, is running this year for Vermont Senate in Washington County — as a Democrat. This is the same path taken by Chittenden Sen. Tim Ashe two years ago. Ashe, long active in Burlington Progressive circles, was elected to the Senate in 2008 as a Democrat.
Bernie Sanders, who got his start as a Progressive mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, long ago broke his formal ties with the Progressive Party. Sanders has listed himself on the ballot as an independent for many years.
In both Washington and Vermont, Sanders’ ties with the Democratic Party are becoming ever closer. Sanders no longer says that there are few major differences between Democrats and Republicans. In 2006, Sanders coordinated his U.S. Senate campaign with the Vermont Democrats, and his picture appeared on a flyer mailed out by the Democratic Party seeking support for the Democratic ticket.
Sanders caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate, and his vote could be crucial to maintaining a Democratic majority in a closely divided Senate in January. Also, Sanders has endorsed a Democratic senatorial candidate running in another state this year, Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, and has asked his supporters to donate money to Feingold’s campaign.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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