Eric Davis: Primary offers competitive contests

With the Vermont primary a few days away, there are competitive races for governor in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
The Democratic contest is now between Matt Dunne and Sue Minter. While Peter Galbraith is a serious candidate, and will receive more than a handful of votes, does his presence on the ballot hurt Dunne or Minter more?
Galbraith draws votes primarily from Dunne, who is competing in the same “progressive/outsider” space as Galbraith. If Minter wins the primary, will Galbraith’s vote end up being greater than Minter’s margin over Dunne?
Gov. Howard Dean endorsed Minter in part because he sees her as the Democrat most likely to win in November. One could also argue that Dunne is more electable. Minter’s service in the administration of the unpopular Gov. Peter Shumlin could hurt her, while Dunne could benefit from his attempts to channel the hugely popular Bernie Sanders.
Dunne himself could end up being hurt among renewable energy advocates by his announcement late last week supporting local veto votes on wind power siting. This position was intended to prevent voters defecting from Dunne to Galbraith, but, as Shumlin noted, it is contrary to the state’s current policy.
Bill McKibben, once a supporter of Dunne, has switched his endorsement to Minter. But how many voters cast early votes for Dunne because of McKibben’s prior endorsement?
In the Republican primary, Bruce Lisman’s relentless spending has turned what I thought would be a comfortable victory for Phil Scott into a competitive race. Lisman will spend more than $2 million on the primary, most of it his own money.
Lisman is trying to appeal to disgruntled voters and to anti-Scott conservative Republicans. However, most Republican legislators and other elected officials believe that Scott is by far the more electable of the two candidates in November. They see Scott as appealing to centrist and independent voters in the general election, while Lisman’s support would be confined more to the relatively small Republican base.
Lisman is plumbing the depths of negativity by broadcasting some of the most misleading advertisements seen in Vermont in a decade, both questioning Scott’s integrity and attempting to tie Scott to Shumlin. Vermont candidates who have relied heavily on negative ads have not done well, but Lisman’s spending rate per voter is much higher than that of candidates in previous cycles.
The Democratic primary for lieutenant governor remains fluid, with Shap Smith and David Zuckerman the stronger candidates, but Kesha Ram is still very much in the race. Ram’s chances of winning depend on a closely divided three-way finish, with her doing very well in Burlington, which she has represented in the Legislature for eight years. She also needs a high turnout of young voters who want someone from their generation in office.
The choice between Smith and Zuckerman is a classic mainstream vs. progressive campaign within the Democratic Party. With primary turnout likely to be low, progressives will make up a substantial share of the Democratic electorate.
The electability question is important when evaluating Smith and Zuckerman. If Zuckerman were to win the primary, are Vermonters willing to elect an unabashed progressive, who is not named Bernie Sanders, to a senior statewide position?
If Smith were to win the primary, would his associations with the Legislature, never the most popular institution in Vermont, as well as the Shumlin agenda, be liabilities in the general election campaign against Republican Randy Brock?
Regardless of the primary results, the campaigns for both governor and lieutenant governor in the fall are likely to be very competitive, as is typically the case when an incumbent is not running for re-election to one of those positions.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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