Politically Thinking: Clock ticking for GOP challengers

While November 2012 seems a long way off, candidates who are serious about challenging Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Peter Shumlin will need to decide soon whether to enter those races. Campaign organizing and fund-raising for one of Vermont’s top-ticket offices now takes a year or more.
Several of Vermont’s leading Republicans plan to meet this summer to talk about the 2012 campaign. One of those who will be at this meeting is Auditor Tom Salmon. Until Salmon decides what race he is going to enter in 2012, other Republicans’ political plans are on hold. Salmon, who was a Democrat until two years ago, announced earlier this year that he had formed an exploratory committee to consider a run against Sen. Sanders. Last month, Salmon told Vermont Public Radio that he was less sure than he was in the spring that he would indeed become a U.S. Senate candidate, and that he might run for governor instead.
Salmon has presumably realized in the last few months that running against Sanders would be a formidable challenge. Sanders has been a major figure in Vermont politics for more than 30 years, and he has served in the House and Senate for 21 years. Polls show that he continues to have high approval ratings from Vermont voters.
Sanders has never received less than 60 percent of the vote in any election since 1994. He is raising money at a steady pace for 2012, collecting roughly $500,000 per quarter, according to his campaign finance reports. At this rate, Sanders should be able to raise between $4 million and $5 million. Salmon would be doing well to raise one-tenth as much over the next 18 months. A Sanders-Salmon Senate race would likely be uncompetitive, with Sanders winning by a margin of 15 to 20 percent, and perhaps more.
If Salmon decides not to enter the U.S. Senate race, he could either run for re-election as auditor or challenge Gov. Shumlin for re-election. While Salmon might do a bit better in a campaign for governor than for U.S. Senate, Shumlin would also have to be considered a strong favorite for re-election. He has the advantage of incumbency, and no Vermont governor has been defeated for re-election since 1962. President Obama and Sen. Sanders at the top of the ticket will attract Democratic and progressive voters to the polls next year, and a high turnout will help Shumlin. Shumlin has also geared up his political apparatus, and is already starting to organize and raise money for his re-election.
While Salmon did win re-election in a competitive race for auditor last year, he has certain weaknesses that could become apparent in a gubernatorial campaign. He sometimes behaves impulsively, both toward others in the political community and toward the press, and these traits might emerge again in the heat of a campaign. He is not the most articulate campaigner when it comes to public policy issues, which will be a substantial disadvantage in debates with Shumlin, who has two decades of policy-making experience in state government.
An example of Salmon’s difficulties was his remark in the VPR interview that Tennessee was a state that Vermont should look to as a model of fiscal policy. While Tennessee has no state income tax, it has a combined state and local sales tax of between 9 and 10 percent on all goods and 5.5 percent on food. Vermont Democrats would relish the idea of running against a candidate who considered Tennessee’s tax system to be a model for Vermont.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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