Eric Davis: Election a referendum on Shumlin, Democrats

Here are some things to look for as Vermont election results are reported next Tuesday night.
Turnout. Off-year turnout in Vermont typically runs between 55 and 60 percent of the registered voters. This year’s turnout is likely to be between 45 and 50 percent, about 10 percent lower than normal.
With no presidential election, no U.S. Senate contest in Vermont this year, and a gubernatorial race with uninspiring candidates, a larger number of voters than usual may choose to stay home. The record low Vermont turnout in the modern era was 44.7 percent, in 1978.           
Governor. Peter Shumlin is favored for re-election, but by a much closer margin than in 2012, when he defeated Randy Brock by 57 to 37 percent. Republican Scott Milne’s campaign and message have improved in recent weeks, but he is unlikely to do much better than the low 40-percent range. Will Shumlin clear the 50 percent threshold needed on Election Day to avoid having to be elected by the Legislature in January?
If Milne were to get 38 to 42 percent, Libertarian Dan Feliciano 5 or 6 percent, and the four other candidates 3 percent among them, Shumlin’s total could hover right around 50 percent. If Shumlin were to receive 50 percent of the vote on a 48 percent turnout, he would be re-elected with the support of only 24 percent of Vermont’s registered voters, one of the weakest showings ever by a re-elected governor.
While Vermont does not have a “none of the above” line on the ballot, some voters may choose to cast a “protest vote” for governor, by staying home, leaving the governor section on the ballot blank, voting for an independent candidate, or writing in the name of a non-candidate such as Doug Racine. In any case, Shumlin may be hard-pressed to call the election results a mandate for his third term.
Lieutenant Governor. Most political analysts expected the race between incumbent Republican Phil Scott and Progressive/Democrat Dean Corren to be the most competitive contest in this cycle. However, an early-October poll by the Castleton Polling Institute showed Scott with a 30-point lead.
While Corren is likely to finish closer to Scott than the poll numbers, he does not appear to have dented Scott’s incumbency advantages, personal appeal, and cross-party support. To finish above the low-40 percent range, Corren needs to attract votes from more than Progressive Party activists and the Democratic base. Corren, a strong supporter of single-payer health care, is trying hard to get votes on the basis of that issue.
Corren may end up doing not much better than Cassandra Gekas, Scott’s little-known and underfunded Democratic opponent in 2012, who received 40 percent of the vote. Corren has over $200,000 in public financing available, and has previously been a member of the Legislature, but he appears to be finding it difficult to translate this money and experience into votes in a statewide contest.
Legislature. Although the Vermont Republican party nominated candidates for only slightly more than half of the legislative seats, the GOP may end up gaining a small number of seats in both the House and the Senate. Republicans hope that, along with independents sympathetic to the GOP, they can deny the Democrats super-majority status in the House in the 2015-2016 biennium.
Health Care. Single-payer health care is not on the ballot next Tuesday. But if Shumlin wins an underwhelming victory as the least undesirable candidate for governor, if Scott is re-elected comfortably, and if the Republicans make gains in the Legislature, the political environment for single-payer advocates in 2015 will be more challenging than they may have anticipated earlier this year.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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