Eric Davis: Hallquist poses serious challenge to Scott
Phil Scott is the favorite to be re-elected governor, but Christine Hallquist may make Scott work for a second term. Incumbent governors sometimes coast to re-election after just two years in office. Such an outcome does not appear likely this year.
Both polls and primary turnout numbers show greater enthusiasm among Democrats than among Republicans heading into the fall campaign. Primary turnout was higher than many expected, with more than 20 percent of the registered voters going to the polls.
Nearly twice as many Vermonters chose to vote in the Democratic primary than in the Republican primary. Hallquist, with 27,600 votes, received more votes than any candidate for governor on any primary ballot. Scott had 24,100 primary votes.
Midterm elections often depend on which party can do better turning out its base. The Democrats have an advantage here, but the primary results demonstrated that both Scott and Hallquist face challenges getting their party’s base voters fully behind them.
Keith Stern received one-third of the votes in the Republican primary. Stern’s campaign priorities — defense of Second Amendment rights, a fiscal policy more conservative than Scott’s, and support of President Trump — may not appeal to a large number of Vermonters. However, the Stern primary voters comprise a significant part of the Republican base.
The Scott campaign needs to convince Stern voters to support the governor’s re-election, and not stay home on Nov. 6. If these voters stay home, the Vermont GOP’s task in retaining the 51 House seats needed to sustain Scott’s vetoes in 2019 and 2020 will become much more difficult.
However, Scott will have to rely on independent and Democratic voters in order to win. There are just not enough Republicans in Vermont.
James Ehlers and Brenda Siegel together received almost as many votes as Hallquist in the Democratic primary. Ehlers and Siegel used debates and forums in the primary campaign to portray themselves as more progressive than Hallquist. While Hallquist supports two important Democratic priorities — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and establishing a paid family leave program — her views on other issues differ from core progressives in the Democratic base.
Hallquist supports the idea of single-payer health care in principle, but she does not believe that Vermont can go it alone on this issue. She wants to see “Medicare for all” implemented by a coalition of states. Many progressives would like Vermont to go first on single-payer, regardless of what other states do.
Hallquist has also said that imported hydropower from Quebec, and power generated by out-of-state nuclear plants, can contribute to attaining Vermont’s renewable energy goals. Many progressive Democrats would disagree, emphasizing locally generated wind and solar to the exclusion of imported hydro and nuclear power.
Just as Scott needs to convince conservatives to vote for him in November, Hallquist must convince progressives to vote for her. Can she appeal to progressives without losing support among centrist and independent voters? Scott’s campaign is counting on moderates to vote for Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch, and then vote to re-elect the governor.
Hallquist’s primary victory received considerable coverage in national media. As the first major-party transgender nominee for governor in any state, she should be able to raise money from individual donors outside Vermont. These funds will help her close the money gap with Scott, whose campaign will receive substantial donations from corporations and political action committees.
Scott will also benefit from substantial spending on both mainstream and social media by the Republican Governors Association. Whether the Democratic Governors Association will get behind Hallquist in a comparable way remains to be seen. To convince the DGA to get involved in Vermont, Hallquist will need to show poll and fundraising numbers in the coming weeks indicating that she is closing the gap with Scott.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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