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Politically Thinking: Brock facing an uphill challenge

Randy Brock, the Franklin County state senator and former state auditor, announced two weeks ago that he would be running for governor in 2012 as the Republican candidate. What are the opportunities and challenges facing Brock as he begins his gubernatorial campaign?
Brock has experience as a statewide candidate, having run for auditor in 2004 and 2006. He is very knowledgeable on the issues facing Vermont, and will present his views effectively on the campaign trail. He will be a worthy opponent in debates with Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Brock will be able to use the upcoming legislative session to sharpen policy differences between himself and Shumlin on issues such as health care, energy policy, and the state’s budget and taxes. He can be expected to take on the role of “leader of the opposition” in the Legislature. Brock will be the Republican point person in opposing the initiatives of the Shumlin administration and the Democratic legislative majority.
In spite of these opportunities, Brock will face many challenges in taking on Shumlin. First, as Brock himself noted in his announcement speech, no incumbent governor of Vermont has been defeated for re-election since 1962. While this streak will eventually come to an end, 2012 does not appear to be shaping up as a history-making gubernatorial election.
A public poll taken in August 2011 showed that only about one-third of the voters surveyed were able to rate Randy Brock favorably or unfavorably. One of Brock’s biggest challenges is to increase his name recognition. While news coverage of his activities during the legislative session will help, the best way for a statewide candidate to build name recognition is through radio and television advertisements.
Brock has said that his public campaign will not begin in earnest until after the legislative session ends in May. That may be too late for Brock to close the name recognition gap between himself and Shumlin, especially since polls show that the governor is seen in generally favorable terms by the Vermont electorate.
Shumlin is a prodigious fund-raiser, and his organization from the 2010 election remains in place. Once Shumlin declares his candidacy for re-election in late spring or early summer, his own advertising campaign, featuring extensive broadcast advertising, will begin. Unless Brock can keep pace with Shumlin by raising close to half a million dollars during the “silent phase” of his campaign, Brock may be forced into playing catch-up with the governor throughout the summer and fall.
In the modern era of Vermont politics, new Republican governors have been first elected either in off-year elections (Richard Snelling in 1990 and Jim Douglas in 2002) or in presidential election years in which Republicans won Vermont’s electoral votes (Deane Davis in 1968 and Snelling in 1976). No Republican has ever been elected governor for the first time in a year in which the Democratic presidential candidate carried Vermont.
Regardless of how he does nationally, President Obama will almost certainly win the popular vote in Vermont by a substantial margin. Indeed, Vermont could very well be one of Obama’s best states in 2012.
Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch should also be re-elected comfortably to the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, respectively. Strong showings by Obama, Sanders and Welch will generate a large voter turnout, which will not be an electorate favorable to Randy Brock’s campaign for governor. Brock’s best hope for keeping the gubernatorial election close would be a low turnout election in which the Republican base makes up a larger share of the voters.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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