Eric Davis: Turnout is crucial in the gubernatorial primary
With less than a week to go until the Vermont primary election, three key questions remain open. How many voters will turn out for the primary? How will challenger Keith Stern fare against Governor Scott in the Republican primary? Who will finish first in the Democratic primary for governor?
Since the Vermont primary was moved from September to August in 2010, the highest turnout – in the low 20 percent range – has been in 2010 and 2016. These were years when there was an open gubernatorial seat. In 2012 and 2014, primary turnout was in the mid-teens or less. With no open-seat race for governor this year, primary turnout is unlikely to exceed 20 percent, and might be considerably lower.
Several town clerks report that, through last week, early voting turnout is down significantly from 2016, a year in which there were contested primaries for governor in both the Democratic and Republican parties. While there are some vigorous primaries for county and legislative offices, such as those on the Democratic side for Addison County Sheriff and for the Addison-2 House district in the Bristol area, these races are unlikely to draw the same level of turnout as contested primaries for an open governor’s seat.
Stern’s primary challenge to Scott is based on support for Second Amendment rights, conservative fiscal policy, and approval of many of the actions of President Trump. These positions will appeal to conservative base voters in the Republican primary, but such voters do not make up a large share of the overall Vermont electorate. Does Stern have enough appeal to make Scott have to work for a primary victory?
The Republican Governors’ Association may think so. The RGA has purchased $275,000 in pro-Scott advertising up through primary day. The ads, on the theme of “A Stronger Vermont,” emphasize improvement in the Vermont economy over the past two years and Scott’s opposition to new taxes and fees that were supported by legislative Democrats.
The ads seem designed to encourage independent voters who do not normally vote in the GOP primary to choose a Republican ballot and vote for Scott, in order to see off Stern. If Stern ends up with more than 30 percent of the primary vote, that would be a sign that Scott, while not in danger of not being re-elected in November, is losing touch with the conservative and pro-Trump parts of the Republican base.
Two of the Democratic candidates for governor – James Ehlers and Christine Hallquist – appear better-positioned to win the primary. While neither has name recognition much over 40 percent, and neither has raised much money, they both have been campaigning for many months, have some grass-roots supporters around the state, and have picked up some endorsements.
Ehlers appears to be focusing his primary campaign on core Democratic voters, especially in Chittenden County. Hallquist appears to be emphasizing voters in more rural areas, especially those in the Central Vermont territory served by the Vermont Electric Co-op, the utility for which she previously was CEO.
The two other Democratic candidates whose names will be on the ballot are less likely to win, but their votes could determine whether Ehlers or Hallquist ends up as the Democratic nominee. Brenda Siegel, of Windham County, hails from one of the most-strongly Democratic parts of the state, and has tried to use recent debates and forums to present herself as the most progressive candidate in the race.
Ethan Sonneborn, of Bristol, has shown a maturity and knowledge about issues facing the state that is unusual for a 14-year-old. If he remains in Vermont after he graduates from high school, he has the potential for a successful public career in the state, either in elected or appointed office, or on the staff of an advocacy organization.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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