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Eric Davis: Low primary turnouts should worry state Democrats

Turnout in last week’s primary election was a near-record low, with only about 8 percent of Vermont’s registered voters casting ballots. The few places with reasonably high turnout were districts such as Middlebury, with contested primaries for open legislative seats.
Statewide, the turnout of Democratic voters was particularly low. Normally, more than 70 percent of primary voters choose the Democratic ballot. This year, fewer than 60 percent of the votes were cast in the Democratic primary.
Turnout in November could also be low, because 2014 is not a presidential election year and there is no U.S. Senate race in Vermont. General Election turnout could be slightly under 50 percent, a good 10 percent lower than is typical for an off-year in Vermont.
Vermont Democrats should be concerned about low turnout. While Democratic incumbents holding statewide offices will be re-elected regardless of the turnout, there may be less enthusiasm for these incumbents this year than in previous cycles.
Over 20 percent of Democratic primary voters did not vote for Peter Shumlin. They voted either for H. Brooke Paige, a nearly unknown candidate, wrote in someone else’s name, or left the governor section of the ballot blank.
The primary results, and polls, show that Shumlin does not inspire the same degree of personal enthusiasm as long-time incumbents such as Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders. Low turnout resulting from lukewarm support for Shumlin could be problematic for Democratic legislative incumbents in competitive races, such as the Vergennes-area and Bristol-area House districts.
Shumlin does have vulnerabilities this election year. The botched roll-out of Vermont Health Connect does not inspire confidence in his administration’s competence. The governor’s failure to comply with the statutory requirement to provide the Legislature with plans for the financing and benefits for a single-payer health care system by Jan. 1, 2013, shows a lack of transparency and accountability.
Most of the contributions to Shumlin’s re-election campaign come from wealthy individuals; from businesses that are regulated by, subsidized by or do business with the state; or from out-of-state interests that Shumlin has met in his role as chair of the Democratic Governors Association. Ordinary Vermonters could ask whether this pattern of contributions means that these donors have inside access to Shumlin and his administration.
Although Vermont has a low unemployment rate, middle-income Vermonters have seen their living standards stagnate over the last four years. Health care costs and property taxes, even for those in the income-sensitivity program, continue to rise while their incomes have increased barely at all.
In spite of these vulnerabilities, Shumlin is strongly favored for re-election. For an incumbent to face a difficult re-election, the challenging candidate must lead a united party and must run a high-energy, mistake-free campaign. Republican challenger Scott Milne falls short on both these dimensions.
Libertarian Dan Feliciano received about 15 percent of the Republican primary vote after a write-in campaign that started only about 10 days before the election. Feliciano could easily gain up to 10 percent of the vote in the General Election, almost all of it at the expense of Milne.
Some of Feliciano’s voters will be opponents of single-payer health care. Others will be moderate Republicans and independents who are dissatisfied with Shumlin and want a candidate who is more knowledgeable on the issues and more willing to stand up for his positions than Milne.
Scott Milne strikes me as the weakest major-party challenger to an incumbent governor in the more than 30 years that I have been following Vermont politics. The state’s voters and political system are not well-served by the Republican Party’s inability to recruit a better-prepared, more experienced and more inspiring candidate.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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