Politically Thinking: Turnout, incumbency key in primary

With less than a week to go before the statewide primary election, I have two major questions about next Tuesday’s Democratic primary for attorney general between Bill Sorrell and T.J. Donovan.
First, how many people will go to the polls? There are about 455,000 registered voters in Vermont. In 2010, there were competitive elections for several open statewide offices in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, including a five-candidate Democratic primary for governor. Two years ago, 75,000 people voted in the Democratic primary and 30,000 in the Republican primary.
I expect that turnout in next week’s primary will be about half what it was two years ago — between 35,000 and 40,000 on the Democratic side, and perhaps 15,000 on the Republican side. This would represent a turnout of 11 or 12 percent of the registered voters, compared with a projected turnout of about 70 percent in the November General Election. Town clerks report that, as of the end of last week, early voting was slower than in previous election years, so this could be a harbinger of a low-turnout primary.
Second, can T.J. Donovan become the first challenger to defeat a sitting state-wide officeholder in a Democratic primary in Vermont history, and the first challenger in any party to defeat a statewide incumbent in a primary since 1946, when Republican Gov. Mortimer Proctor was defeated in the primary by Ernest Gibson Jr.?
Donovan, the Chittenden County state’s attorney, has a superior political organization to incumbent Attorney General Sorrell. Donovan has raised more money within Vermont than Sorrell, he has received more endorsements (from both individuals and organizations) than the incumbent, and he has a stronger field operation working on voter identification and turnout — a critical task in a low-turnout primary election.
Sorrell has worked hard to close the gap with Donovan in the past few weeks. Sorrell has used debates and joint media appearances to lay out his 15-year record as attorney general, and has argued that any lawyer would have had trouble defending progressive state laws on campaign finance and prescription drug data mining before the most conservative U.S. Supreme Court in more than 70 years.
Earlier this year, Sorrell joined the attorney generals of 22 other states in submitting a brief to the Supreme Court supporting a Montana law that prohibited corporations from making campaign contributions to state and local candidates in Montana. At the end of June, the Supreme Court summarily overturned the Montana law, citing its Citizens United decision as a precedent.
If Sorrell ends up winning the primary, it may be because of an advertising campaign on his behalf conducted by the Democratic Attorney Generals Association, an organization to which most of the 22 signers of the Supreme Court brief belong. The DAGA has donated $6,000 directly to the Sorrell campaign, and is spending about $175,000 on an independent effort featuring broadcast advertisements and direct mail highlighting former governor Howard Dean’s endorsement of Sorrell.
Almost all of the funds that the DAGA is spending in Vermont come from contributions to the association by out-of-state law firms and corporations. Citicorp, Google, Microsoft, Pfizer and Monsanto are among the corporations that have contributed $50,000 or more to the DAGA in the current election cycle. We will find out next Tuesday night whether an incumbent supported by a last-minute advertising campaign paid for by out-of-state corporate interests can defeat a challenger who has demonstrated impressive levels of grass-roots support within Vermont.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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