Eric Davis: Middlebury House race intriguing

Middlebury’s voters will see a competitive election for the town’s two Vermont House seats, a consequence of Rep. Paul Ralston’s not running for another term.
Three candidates have filed for the Aug. 26 Democratic primary. Rep. Betty Nuovo, who has served in the House from 1981 through 1990, and again from 1997 to the present, will be seeking her 15th term in Montpelier.
Donna Donahue has been active in Middlebury business circles, serving as a marketing professional with the National Bank of Middlebury and, until recently, as the president of the Better Middlebury Partnership economic development organization.
Amy Sheldon, an environmental consultant, was the first director of the Middlebury Land Trust, and has served as a member of the Middlebury Planning Commission and the District 9 Environmental Commission. Sheldon’s candidacy has been endorsed by the Progressive Party. If she finishes in the top two in the Democratic primary, she will be listed on the November ballot as Democratic/Progressive. If she finishes third in the primary, she will have the Progressive designation on the General Election ballot.
Two independent candidates will also be on the General Election ballot. Tom Hughes, who recently completed a term on Middlebury’s UD-3 school board, is running for the House as an independent. He wants to bring more balance to Montpelier, and to give voters an alternative to the Democratic/Progressive super-majority in the Vermont House.
The second independent candidate is Calvin McEathron, a junior at Middlebury College. He grew up in central Vermont and is majoring in economics and political science at the college.
With five candidates running in a two-member district, this contest will be more competitive than Middlebury voters have seen in many years. At this time, early in the campaign cycle, Nuovo would have to be considered a favorite for re-election. With 28 years of service in the House, she has higher name recognition than any of the other candidates. However, Nuovo will have to work for re-election rather than relying solely on incumbency and name recognition. For any office, long-time incumbents who rarely face competitive elections sometimes let their campaign skills atrophy.
Donahue and Sheldon should both be considered competitive candidates in the Democratic primary. Donahue is well-known in the town’s business community. She could also present herself as a worthy successor to Ralston, one of the few House Democrats with a business and entrepreneurial background.
Sheldon has a geographical base in East Middlebury and is well-known among the town’s environmental community. Sheldon’s endorsement by the Progressives will also help her with progressive-minded Democratic primary voters and singlepayer health care advocates.
All three Democrats face the challenge of getting their supporters to the polls in what is often a low-turnout August primary.
I will be interested to see how much headway Hughes can make in the General Election. Independent candidates are not able to call on party organizations to help with mailings, phone calls and other publicity. Hughes does have prior political experience, having won election to the school board. Whether this is enough to overcome the disadvantage of not being a Democrat in one of the most heavily Democratic towns in the state is an open question. Hughes’ best hope may be getting “bullet votes” in November — voters who mark their ballots for him and no other candidates.
McEathron, although highly motivated and energetic, faces the most challenging road in the General Election. The other four candidates have all been involved in Middlebury public life, as elected or appointed officials, or as organizational leaders. McEathron’s best hope may lie with college student “bullet voters,” but student turnout is traditionally very low in non-presidential election years.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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