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Politically Thinking: Democrats showed remarkable reach

The Vermont Democratic Party had the strongest performance in its history in last week’s election.
President Obama won 67 percent of the vote in Vermont, his third-best showing in the nation. Only the District of Columbia and Hawaii gave the president a higher vote share than Vermont. Obama won all 14 of Vermont’s counties, including traditionally Republican areas in northern Vermont.
Democrats have now won every presidential election in Vermont since 1992. Since 2001, Democrats, or independents who caucus with the Democrats in Washington, have held all three seats in Vermont’s congressional delegation.
Gov. Shumlin defeated Republican Randy Brock by a 20-point margin. This was the best showing by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Howard Dean’s 1996 re-election. Shumlin won 10 of the 14 counties, losing only the Northeast Kingdom (Caledonia, Essex, and Orleans counties) and Franklin County, Brock’s home. Shumlin narrowly won Rutland County, usually a Republican stronghold.
Democrats were elected to five of the six statewide offices, including impressive victories by Doug Hoffer and Beth Pearce, who were expected to be at best narrow winners in the campaigns for auditor and treasurer. Only incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was able to resist the Democratic wave that swept over Vermont last week.
During the latter years of Howard Dean’s governorship, the Democrats also held five of the six statewide offices (Jim Douglas, as treasurer, was the only statewide Republican at that time), but the Legislature in that period was much more closely divided between the parties than it is today.
In 2012, Democratic candidates expanded their already large majorities in both the Vermont Senate and House. Particularly impressive were Democratic legislative victories in traditionally Republican parts of the state. Democrats now hold three of the four Senate seats from the Northeast Kingdom, and all the House seats in both St. Albans City and St. Johnsbury. Although the Democrats lost two House seats in Rutland City, they picked up seats in several historically Republican areas of the state, including districts centered around Enosburg, Brandon and Killington. No part of the state can be considered completely safe for the Republicans any longer.
A quick examination of last week’s national election results indicates that Vermont is now second only to Massachusetts in terms of the strength of the Democratic party across all offices. In the Bay State, Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s election to the U.S. Senate means that Democrats hold all the positions in the Massachusetts congressional delegation — both Senate seats and all nine House seats. All six statewide offices in Massachusetts are held by Democrats, as are 163 of the 200 seats in the Massachusetts state legislature.
Some of last week’s Democratic victories in Vermont can be explained by organization. The Democrats far surpassed the Republicans in terms of the “ground game” — a field organization that worked to identify Democratic voters and make sure they turned out at the polls. A ground game cannot be successful, however, if the candidates are presenting a message that the voters don’t want to hear. Even if the Republicans had been better organized this year, their candidates’ messages did not resonate with voters’ concerns.
If Vermont Republicans want to be successful in the future, they need to talk about issues in a way that is responsive to the voters. Alternatively, moderate Republicans such as Phil Scott may want to consider whether to follow the path set by Jim Jeffords, and by former Republicans Lowell Weicker in Connecticut and Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, and become independents in order to be competitive for the state’s highest offices.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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