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Eric Davis: Progressives must weigh their votes carefully

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, the chair of the Vermont Progressive Party, has said the Progressives will likely run a candidate for governor in 2016, after having sat out the gubernatorial campaigns in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Mulvaney-Stanak said that Progressive Party activists do not trust that a Democratic governor would be a strong advocate for their policy positions.
The Progressive candidate would presumably use the state’s new option for public financing of statewide campaigns. If a candidate for governor raises at least $35,000 from at least 1,500 people, in contributions of $50 or less, that candidate is eligible for up to $600,000 in public financing for his or her campaign.
While $600,000 is certainly enough to run a serious campaign for governor, it is probably about one-third of the amount that the eventual winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries, and parties and committees supporting those candidates, will each spend on their behalf.
But who is likely to be the Progressive candidate for governor? The most high-profile Progressives are members of the Legislature. Rep. Chris Pearson, Sen. Anthony Pollina and Sen. David Zuckerman have all said they are not interested in running for governor.
Pearson, the Progressives’ leader in the House, has said he wants to remain in the House. If Progressives, Independents and Republicans all gain a few seats in 2016, the Progressive caucus could hold the balance of power in the House starting in January 2017.
Pollina, who has run for governor twice before, has said he will likely run for re-election to the Senate. Pollina has a reasonably safe seat in Washington County, which he would risk by making a third run for the governorship and ending up not holding any office in 2017.
Zuckerman is seriously considering becoming a candidate for lieutenant governor, an office which will be open in 2016, because incumbent Phil Scott is running for governor. Zuckerman wants to use the lieutenant governorship as a bully pulpit for ideas such as adequate funding of human services programs, reform of the state’s cannabis laws, and moving toward universal primary health care.
State election law would allow Zuckerman to enter the Democratic primary and simultaneously seek the Progressive nomination on write-in votes. The Democratic primary field for lieutenant governor could include five or more candidates, many of them from the Senate. With so many candidates, one of them could win the Democratic nomination with as few as 15,000 votes in a low-turnout primary.
Zuckerman has multiple political bases: his Senate constituents in Chittenden County, Progressive activists, and the organic agricultural community. These varied sources of support could make him a strong candidate in the Democratic primary. Even if Zuckerman loses the Democratic primary, he could still appear on the General Election ballot for lieutenant governor as a Progressive.
With well-known Progressive legislators looking at other offices, the Progressive candidate for governor could end up being someone who has very low name recognition. Even with robust public financing available, a relatively unknown Progressive candidate will struggle to make herself or himself known in comparison with the winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries, who will have campaigned hard all next summer.
The Progressive candidate for governor is most likely to finish third in the General Election, well behind the two large parties’ nominees. If there were no Progressive on the ballot, some Progressive voters might stay home, but more would likely vote for the Democrat than the Republican.
A Progressive who finishes a distant third could end up taking enough votes away from the Democrat that the Republican finishes first in a close race. This outcome would be the least desirable election result for many Progressive voters.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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