Politically Thinking: McDonald a viable state candidate

Pat McDonald, the chair of the Vermont Republican Party, could well be the Republican candidate for governor in 2012. While she has not yet declared her candidacy, many Republicans are urging McDonald to enter the race. The other Republicans who have been mentioned as gubernatorial candidates have either not shown interest in a 2012 campaign (Brian Dubie and Randy Brock), or have decided to seek re-election to their current position (Tom Salmon).
No incumbent governor of Vermont has been defeated for re-election since 1962, so the lack of Republican challengers to Peter Shumlin is not at all surprising. Shumlin is in a strong position for 2012, with positive approval ratings, a robust campaign and fund-raising apparatus in place, and a general sense among Vermonters that he and his administration have effectively handled the response to Tropical Storm Irene. Shumlin will also benefit from a large voter turnout by supporters of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, both of whom will be on the ballot in 2012.
While McDonald is unlikely to be elected governor next year, she would be a serious candidate who would run a credible campaign. McDonald has broad and deep experience on both the policy and political sides of Vermont state government. Her resume includes service in senior positions in the administrations of Governors Dick Snelling, Howard Dean and Jim Douglas. After leaving the executive branch, she served two terms in the Legislature. In the 2010 cycle, she successfully managed Phil Scott’s campaign for lieutenant governor. She has been Republican Party chair since February 2011.
The issues that McDonald will likely emphasize in her campaign will be the economy, health care and energy. On the economy, McDonald will argue that the state needs to do more to encourage private sector job growth. While Vermont has large public and non-profit sectors, a challenge for state government is to grow the economy so the resources are there to support the private, public and nonprofit sectors. McDonald will support changes to tax and regulatory policy that she believes will result in faster economic development and job growth in Vermont.
On health care, McDonald will likely focus on the work of the Green Mountain Care Board as it begins implementing the health care law enacted earlier this year. McDonald will criticize the health care reform process for putting off the deadline for the Green Mountain Care Board to propose a benefits package and financing plan for a possible single-payer health care system until early 2013. She will argue that voters and businesses should have the information on what the new health care plan would cover, and how it would be paid for, before the November 2012 election.
On energy, McDonald will support the continued operation of Vermont Yankee past March 2012. She will argue that nuclear power can be part of Vermont’s energy mix, and that state government should drop its opposition to Yankee’s relicensing. She will also emphasize the importance of low-cost and stable energy supplies, plus Vermont Yankee’s 600 well-paid employees, to the state’s economic development efforts.
A challenge for McDonald will be convincing Vermont voters to see her campaign for governor as separate from national Republican campaigns. President Obama remains popular in Vermont. The U.S. House Republicans’ proposals not to fully fund FEMA and other disaster relief spending have no support in the state. If McDonald is perceived as associated with Obama’s opponent and congressional Republicans, she will have a hard time getting Vermont voters to focus on her policy proposals regarding state-level issues.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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