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Eric Davis: Will Scott run again?

Govs. Howard Dean, Jim Douglas and Peter Shumlin announced that they would not be running for, respectively, a sixth, a fifth, and a fourth term as governor between 14 and 18 months in advance of the elections at which they would otherwise have been on the ballot.
Two news stories published last week led some Statehouse observers to speculate whether Gov. Phil Scott might be planning a surprise retirement announcement sometime this summer. First, Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille announced that he would be leaving state government and returning to private life sometime in the next few weeks. Gobeille is a veteran of policymaking in the health and human services area, having served first as a member, then as chair, of the Green Mountain Care Board during the Shumlin Administration, and as Human Services Secretary since early 2017.
Gov. Scott said that he hoped that Gobeille would return to public service at some point in the future. When asked by reporters whether he had any interest in running for office, Gobeille’s response was, “Not against him,” referring to Scott. Seven Days political columnist John Walters noted that, having served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, Gobeille could “plausibly position himself as a Phil Scott Republican, moderate on social issues and a steward of the public purse.” Might Gobeille’s impending departure from public service be the precursor of a campaign for governor in 2020, should Scott not run for re-election?
On the Democratic side, sources close to Attorney Gen. T.J. Donovan told reporters last week that Donovan had started to have “conversations” with party activists and leaders about possibly running for governor in 2020. This follows Donovan’s delivering what to many attendees sounded like a gubernatorial campaign speech at the Vermont Democratic Party’s annual Curtis-Hoff fundraising dinner in the spring.
Donovan is obviously a long way from making any decision about whether to run for governor next year, and his decision would be heavily influenced by whatever announcements Scott does or does not make over the next few months. Donovan is well aware that no incumbent Vermont governor seeking re-election has been defeated since 1962, and that challenging Scott would be a difficult race. At the same time, those with whom Donovan had his “conversations” may have tried to convince him that, because of President Trump’s low approval rating in Vermont, and a likely energized turnout of Democratic voters next year, any Republican candidate, even an incumbent governor, on next year’s ballot could be defeated by an opponent with an inspiring message and the organization and financial resources to back it up.
If Scott were not to seek a third term in 2020, Donovan would have to be considered a leading contender for the Democrats in an open-seat race, along with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, and possibly some members of the Legislature and other candidates as well. If Scott were to announce later this year that he is not running in 2020, a contested Democratic primary in August 2020 would be the most likely scenario.
Vermont Republicans, and the Republican Governors’ Association, will do all they can to make the case for seeking a third term to Gov. Scott. The Vermont GOP’s bench of potential gubernatorial candidates is very thin. For the incumbent to step down in a presidential election year, in a heavily Democratic state, would make it most difficult for the Republicans to retain the governorship. Coupled with the substantial Democratic majorities in the Legislature, election of a Democratic governor in 2020 would mean that measures such as increasing the minimum wage, launching a paid family leave program, and establishing a tax-and-regulate system for the sale of cannabis would all be enacted in 2021 even if they were not passed by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Scott in 2020.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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