Eric Davis: Shumlin’s decision creates intrigue

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s announcement that he will not be a candidate for re-election in 2016 was surprising not so much in its substance, but in its timing. Governors Dean and Douglas announced their decisions not to run again in August or September of the year preceding the election, rather than 18 months before the end of their terms.
Shumlin’s narrow victory in 2014 with less than 50 percent of the vote, his loss of support among progressives because of his abandonment of single-payer health care, and his approval rating below 50 percent would have put him in the most vulnerable position of any governor seeking re-election since Howard Dean in 2000.
Shumlin was hurt by low turnout in 2014. He was likely concerned about potentially lower-than-usual turnout in 2016 because of subdued enthusiasm among some Democrats for a ticket headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Putting all these things together, I am not surprised that Shumlin decided to stand down rather than risk being the first governor to lose a re-election bid since 1962.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott had told reporters in recent weeks that he was seriously thinking about running for governor in 2016. With no incumbent in the race, Scott is now more likely to seek the top job himself. Scott, who was re-elected with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2014, would be by far the strongest potential Republican candidate for 2016. He has high name recognition, is well-liked, is a natural campaigner, and, as last year’s results show, can appeal to voters beyond the Republican base.
If Scott announces his candidacy, he should be able to clear the Republican field, avoid a serious primary challenge, and begin planning his General Election campaign. Scott should also be able to count on significant financial and organizational support for his candidacy from the Republican Governors Association, helping to overcome some of the Democrats’ fund-raising and field organization advantages in Vermont.
At this point, House Speaker Shap Smith would appear to be the strongest potential Democratic candidate. But would Smith be able to win the Democratic nomination without having to face a contested primary?
Smith is articulate, very knowledgeable about policy issues, and well-liked by Democratic activists. However, he would have to overcome the disadvantage of being the public face of the Legislature, not the most popular institution in Vermont.
This problem has hurt other speakers who have run for governor. Although several speakers have sought the top office, the last sitting House speaker to be elected governor was Ray Keyser in 1960.
Other Democrats might be interested in the governor’s race as well. Unsuccessful 2010 candidates Doug Racine and Matt Dunne could be interested in making another run, but both of them would find it difficult to come back from multiple losses in statewide races. Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan might also be interested in a statewide race, but the Attorney General’s office might have more appeal to him, especially if Bill Sorrell decides to step down after what will have been 19 years in office.
A wild card speculation would involve Rep. Peter Welch deciding to give up his safe Congressional seat to come back to Vermont and run for governor. Welch could be re-elected to the U.S. House as long he would like, but the idea of serving as governor for a few terms might be of more interest to him than remaining as a member of the minority party in Congress.
If Welch were to become a gubernatorial candidate, he could likely clear the field and avoid a competitive Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Smith, Dunne and other Democrats could consider running for the open congressional seat and representing Vermont in Washington.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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