Eric L. Davis: No real suspense on election front

The next General Election in Vermont is approximately one year away. Which races are likely to be the most closely contested and to receive the most attention from the public and the media?
Sen. Bernie Sanders has not declared that he will be a candidate for re-election to a third term, but all indications point to Sanders running next year, as an independent, not as a Democrat, and being re-elected comfortably. Recent polls of Vermonters show that Sanders’ approval rating is over 70 percent, the highest of any U.S. Senator on next year’s ballot.
Through the end of September, Sanders had nearly $6 million in his campaign account, 83 percent of it raised in small donations of less than $200. While there will likely be a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Vermont in 2018, that person will receive little support from either the state or the national GOP, both of which will be focused on other campaigns. To me, the only question about this race is whether the first digit of Sanders’ vote percentage will be 6 or 7.
Gov. Phil Scott is in a secure position heading into his first re-election bid. Vermonters have not defeated a first-term governor seeking re-election since 1962. With Scott not having made any major mistakes so far, voters will likely give him another two years in the governor’s office next November.
Long-time environmental activist James Ehlers has already announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination to oppose Scott. Ehlers, the executive director of Lake Champlain International, is well-known at the Statehouse for his advocacy on water policy issues.
Other Democrats may join the race as well, but Democrats who now hold elected office may not be enthusiastic about leaving their current posts for what will be a challenging race against Scott. If Ehlers ends up as the Democratic nominee, his campaign will increase public attention to the issue of cleaning up Lake Champlain and how to pay for it, a matter on which many environmental activists believe the Scott Administration is not as proactive as it could be.
The campaign for lieutenant governor could end up being the most competitive race in Vermont next year. Republicans would very much like to defeat incumbent Democrat/Progressive David Zuckerman, who they see as a leftist far removed from Vermont’s political mainstream. So far, no Republicans have announced their candidacy for this position, but Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon has indicated some interest in the lieutenant governorship.
If Sen. Sanders decides to get involved in state politics next year, in addition to helping to elect Democrats to the House and Senate nationwide, he could help Zuckerman raise small contributions and generate grass-roots support within Vermont. Gov. Scott will also try to use whatever coattail effect his re-election campaign can generate to help the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.
The other incumbent statewide Democrats — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, Treasurer Beth Pearce, Secretary of State Jim Condos, Auditor Doug Hoffer and Attorney General T.J. Donovan — should all be re-elected next year with little difficulty, and some of them may end up not having Republican opponents.
Finally, Democrats, Republicans and Progressives will all devote substantial resources to defending their legislative incumbents and trying to pick up a few seats from other parties. Although the Democrats have a 30-seat majority on paper in the House, a few roll-calls last year showed that, on some issues, Scott may have supporters in addition to the 53 Republicans and some of the 7 Independents. Republicans will try hard to get closer to 60 seats in the House, and the Democratic leadership will devote considerable effort to defending their vulnerable incumbents, even if they did not always vote with the leadership in last year’s session.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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