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Eric Davis: Support of Rubio could hurt Scott

Last Friday, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott announced that he would vote for Sen. Marco Rubio in the Republican primary. Less than a week before, Scott had introduced Gov. John Kasich at a campaign event in Colchester.
When asked why he supported Rubio over Kasich, Scott replied that Kasich, as governor of Ohio, had signed a bill to prevent state funding of Planned Parenthood, an organization that, in Scott’s opinion, did “incredible work.” Scott added that Rubio “can build consensus within the party.”
The Vermont political environment in 2016 is favorable for Scott. Gov. Shumlin is unpopular — a poll released by Vermont Public Radio last week shows his approval rating is 37 percent — and the Vermont economy has recovered from the great recession more slowly than the national economy.
Every time the Vermont governorship has been open since 1968, it has switched parties. If this trend continued in 2016, Scott, who is favored to win the Republican gubernatorial primary over Bruce Lisman, would be elected this fall.
The three most recent elections resulting in partisan change in the governorship have been in non-presidential years: 1990, 2002 and 2010. Can a Republican candidate win an open-seat race for governor in a presidential year?
The way Scott handled the Kasich-Rubio question illustrates his greatest vulnerability this fall: the Republican presidential candidate. Vermont Democrats may find it hard to defend Shumlin’s record, and the performance of the state’s economy, over the past six years. The Democrats’ best strategy to retain the governorship could be generating a large voter turnout, and tying Scott to unpopular positions of the GOP presidential candidate.
If Scott found Kasich’s record on Planned Parenthood unacceptable, what does he think about Rubio’s record on that issue? Since the Florida senator arrived in Washington in 2011, he has voted against Planned Parenthood on every roll-call that the National Right to Life Committee has identified as a “pro-life” vote.
Rubio has also said that “an unborn child has a right to live irrespective of the circumstances by which they were conceived.” Thus, he would prohibit abortion in all circumstances except when the mother’s life is in danger, with no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
Although Scott’s position on abortion and Planned Parenthood is different from that of Rubio, by using Planned Parenthood as the reason for not supporting Kasich over Rubio, Scott opens himself to charges from his political opponents of both inconsistency, for abandoning the candidate he introduced just six days earlier, and of being willing to overlook what will likely be one of the most controversial aspects of Rubio’s record, should he become the Republican nominee.
While Kasich certainly is a conservative, his views on some issues could make him the Republican who would do least badly in Vermont in November. He expanded Medicaid in Ohio after passage of the Affordable Care Act. He favors a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and he opposes religious exemptions for public officials and businesses who refuse to provide marriage licenses and private services to same-sex couples.
Lisman, who trailed Scott in the VPR poll, said he voted for Kasich in the primary because of the Ohioan’s record “as a competent manager who has helped to revitalize his state’s economy.” By emphasizing an aspect of Kasich’s record that would appeal to Vermont independents, Lisman handled the matter of who he was supporting in the primary better than Scott.
If Scott wants to be elected governor, he should learn from this example that he needs to convince Vermont independents, whose votes he will need in the fall, that he can separate himself from the most conservative and extreme aspects of the Republican presidential candidate’s record.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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