Eric Davis: Possible senate primary adds spice

Sen. Claire Ayer’s decision not to run for another term in the Vermont Legislature has produced a rare occurrence in the Addison Senate district, consisting of all the Addison County towns, plus Huntington and Buel’s Gore in Chittenden County.
For the first time in many years, there will be an open Senate seat in the Addison District, that is known to be open well before the deadline for candidates to file petitions to be on the ballot. This year, that deadline is Thursday, May 31.
Democratic Sen. Chris Bray has indicated that he will file for another term. Ruth Hardy of East Middlebury has already declared her candidacy for one of the Democratic nominations in the two-seat Senate district. Former Rep. Paul Ralston has said that he is giving very serious consideration to seeking one of the Democratic nominations and will formally announce his plans soon. Assuming Ralston declares his candidacy, there will be a competitive Democratic primary on Aug. 14, with at least three candidates seeking two Senate seats.
Republicans would like to contest the district in the November general election, but whether the GOP can recruit two competitive candidates in the Addison District is an open question. The Republicans might nominate only one candidate and hope that bullet-voting could make that person a contender in November.
In other parts of Vermont where the Democratic Party is strong, such as the Mad River Valley and far southern Vermont, legislative challengers to Democrats have declared their candidacies as independents, and some of them have won seats in the House. Many, but not all, of these independents support Gov. Scott on matters of budget and tax policy, but differ from the Republican Party on issues such as social policy and restrictions on the sale of firearms. By running as independents, they also avoid being associated with President Trump and the national Republican Party. Will there be any competitive independent candidates in the Addison Senate race?
There is unlikely to be very high turnout in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary. With Gov. Scott running for re-election, no high-profile Democratic challenger, who currently holds, or has previously held, elected office has declared her or his candidacy for governor. The candidates who have declared do not have high name recognition around the state, and some of them may well struggle to raise enough money to get the word out about their candidacies. The statewide Democratic incumbents are all in a strong position to be re-elected, and most of them will face no opposition in the primary.
Total primary turnout could be as low as 15 percent of the state’s registered voters, or about 70,000 people, divided perhaps 45,000 in the Democratic primary and 25,000 in the Republican primary. Although a competitive Senate primary in the Addison District could lead to somewhat higher turnout in this area than the statewide average, I would be surprised if more than 4,000 people voted in the Democratic primary in the Addison District, and the turnout could well be closer to 3,000. If there were three competitive candidates in a Democratic primary under these circumstances, as few as 2,200 to 2,500 votes might be enough to win one of the nominations in the primary.
In a low-turnout primary, candidates need to emphasize personal contact with voters rather than more broad-based appeals. While candidates will produce lawn signs and bumper stickers, run newspaper advertisements, and send out mailers, their emphasis will be on getting to events where they can meet voters, such as house parties, party committee events, parades, fairs, and other gatherings held in the summer. This activity will be particularly important for Middlebury-based candidates who may not be well known in the Bristol and Vergennes areas, or the Chittenden County portion of the district.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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