Eric Davis: Lisman as candidate muddies GOP picture

I have recently written several columns arguing that 2016 could be a good year for Vermont Republicans. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott could be a strong candidate for governor, and Republicans could continue making gains in the Legislature, especially the House.
However, the Vermont GOP also faces its share of challenges in 2016. One of them is the national Republican Party, whose presidential nominee, whoever it is, is not likely to do well in Vermont. Closer to home, another challenge is the gubernatorial candidacy of Bruce Lisman.
Lisman is a native Vermonter who grew up in modest circumstances. After graduating from UVM, he moved to New York, and rose through the ranks of the investment bank Bear Stearns. In 2008, when Bear Stearns failed and was purchased by J.P. Morgan Chase, Lisman was co-head of global equities trading. He then left Wall Street and returned to Vermont, establishing Campaign for Vermont, an organization advocating lower taxes and spending, regulatory reform and economic development.
Lisman has never held elective office, although he did serve as the chair of the UVM Board of Trustees. He has been a member of many other boards in both the private and nonprofit sectors. Lisman has decided to run for governor in 2016. He will seek the Republican nomination rather than run as an independent in the General Election.
By entering the Republican primary, Lisman will likely learn that Phil Scott, assuming the lieutenant governor runs, will be a formidable opponent. After 15 years in public office — 10 in the Senate and five as lieutenant governor — Scott is well-known and well-liked around the state. Lisman would find it very difficult to obtain the 15,000 to 20,000 votes needed to defeat Scott in a primary.
The Vermont Republican Party has recently tried to position itself as standing up for the interests of hard-pressed middle-income Vermonters. Scott has demonstrated a strong appeal to that constituency.
Lisman did grow up in a middle-class household in Burlington, and he did head a department other than the one that caused Bear Stearns to collapse. Still, would nominating a gubernatorial candidate who was a senior executive in a failed Wall Street bank have broad support among Vermont voters, in both the Republican primary and the General Election?
By entering the Republican primary, Lisman will force Scott to spend money on a primary campaign that he would rather save for the General Election. The beneficiaries of this strategy will be the Democratic candidates for governor, who are looking at a competitive and potentially costly primary themselves.
If Lisman had decided to bypass the Republican primary and run as an independent in the General Election, his candidacy could have ended up hurting the Republican nominee, whether it is Scott or someone else. There would not have been many policy differences between Lisman and the Republican candidate. Whatever votes Lisman would have received in November, even if only a single-digit percentage, would have likely gone to the Republican if Lisman’s name were not on the ballot.
Republicans should at least be pleased that Lisman decided not to run as an independent. By dividing the non-Democratic vote, a Lisman independent candidacy would have made it easier for a Democrat to finish first in a multi-candidate race. This would be especially so if the Progressive Party decides not to nominate a candidate for governor, but instead concentrates on an open lieutenant governor’s office and picking up seats in the Legislature.
By entering the race for governor as a Republican, Lisman will find out whether GOP primary voters will support his candidacy over that of Phil Scott, a candidate with deeper political experience and broader political appeal.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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