Why are so many Dems running for governor? You just had to ask.

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a correction: The only state in which more than five candidates are seeking a major party’s nomination for governor is Maine. Seven Maine Republicans are on the ballot for the June 8 primary, though unlike the five Democratic contenders in Vermont, at least three of them seem to be fringe candidates with little hope of winning. We apologize for the error.

Some questions about the Democratic primary for governor:

–How did there get to be five (count ‘em—5) bona fide contenders?

–Didn’t anyone in the Democratic Party see that this could be a prescription for defeat and try to talk one or more of the five into running for lieutenant governor or…or whatever?

–If not, why not?

It isn’t that multi-candidate fields are unprecedented. Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis said he could remember two occasions when several candidates vied for a major nomination in Vermont.

Six Republicans ran for the U.S. Senate nomination in 1980 when Sen. Pat Leahy was seeking his second term, and four Democrats ran for the open U.S. House seat in 1988, the one Rep. Jim Jeffords vacated to run for the Senate, Davis said.

But those were federal races. Besides, as Davis pointed out, “in both instances, the winner of the large-field primary lost the general election.”

Even if not unprecedented, five candidates for one nomination is unusual. The only state in which more than five candidates are seeking a major party’s nomination for governor is Maine. Seven Maine Republicans are on the ballot for the June 8 primary, though unlike the five Democratic contenders in Vermont, at least three of them seem to be fringe candidates with little hope of winning. Vermont’s runner-up is Georgia, where four Democrats want the nomination.

But that race is different, with former Gov. Roy Barnes way ahead of his competitors. The Vermont contest starts off with no apparent front-runner.

And unlike many multi-candidate fields, which feature two or three “serious” contenders and a fringe candidate or two (almost every state has its version of Vermont’s perennial candidate Peter Diamondstone), all five Vermont candidates are mainstream Democrats with impressive credentials—three senior state senators, the incumbent Secretary of State, a former legislator who ran statewide once before.

Still, all that explains only what is happening, not why. To get to the ‘whys,’ return to those questions at the beginning, which can be combined into one question with a simple answer.

There are five Democrats in the race because all five wanted to run and there was no way to stop them.

“The problem with Vermont Democrats is that there’s been such a build-up of ambition after eight years of Jim Douglas that the minute he announced he wasn’t going to run, those horses were out of the barn,” said long-time Democratic strategist Steve Terry.

Despite the crowded field, from each candidate’s perspective, running now made perfect sense.

“If history any guide, whoever wins this year will end up serving at least six years,” said Davis, meaning that a politician with ambitions to be governor “really didn’t have much choice.”

Especially, Davis said, because all three Vermont seats in Washington are filled by strong incumbents who are likely to stay in office for several years. That makes the governorship the only realistic option.

So each candidate acted on his or her own, asking no one’s permission.

There’s nothing peculiar to Vermont about this phenomenon. All over the country, politics are becoming more candidate-driven, with party organizations diminishing in importance. Outside of a few outposts—Chicago, Newark, some counties in rural Texas and Kentucky—the days when a few movers and shakers made political decisions in a smoke-filled room are long gone, and not because hardly anybody smokes any more.

If Vermont ever had the kind of strong party structure where a few political leaders and major contributors could select a candidate—or scare one out of a primary race – it was long ago, Davis and Terry agreed.

“The parties never amounted a damn,” Terry said. “It’s all been individual. “

In Montpelier eateries (and drinkeries) one hears snatches of conversation wondering why party leaders didn’t “crack some heads,” as someone put it, to get one or two of the candidates out of the race. But the question seems to express a longing for a world that no longer exists, if it ever did in Vermont.

There is one report of an attempt by a few leading Democrats to urge former Sen. Matt Dunne, at 40 the youngest of the candidates, to run for lieutenant governor instead. But Dunne said that while a few Democrats told him he’d be “a shoo-in” for lieutenant governor, “no one approached with anything remotely like strong pressure.”

Strong pressure doesn’t seem to work any more. It doesn’t even work when it does work. It is generally accepted in Democratic circles that Gov. Howard Dean pressured Sen. Peter Shumlin to run for lieutenant governor in 2002, leaving the top spot for then-Lt. Gov. Doug Racine. That avoided a primary, but both men lost anyway. Now they are two of the five contenders, along with Dunne, Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz ,and Sen. Susan Bartlett.

Both Davis and Terry said that only two Democrats –Leahy and Dean—could possibly persuade a candidate to drop out or to seek another office.

But Leahy is running for his seventh term this year. If he had tried to push a candidate out of the race he would have risked offending that candidate and his/her supporters. No incumbent likes to upset part of his own political base.

Besides, Leahy has always kept his distance from the inner workings and internal divisions of the state’s Democratic Party. And so has Dean since he left the governorship in early 2003.

In some states there are alternative power centers that might pressure a candidate out of a race. If a Democrat in California, for instance, found that the Hispanic community was united against him, he might realize his chances of victory were slim, and withdraw. The same would be true for a contender who offended African-Americans in Illinois, the Jewish community in New York, the United Auto Workers in Michigan, or the Roman Catholic Church in Rhode Island. In all those cases, a few carefully chosen words from a local power broker could convince someone not to run.

But Vermont has no comparable racial, ethnic or labor constituencies. It doesn’t even have a potent big city Democratic organization because Democrats don’t control the closest thing Vermont has to a big city. And because there is no dominant industry in Vermont, there is no dominant fund-raising community.

Thanks to campaign finance laws, candidates have had to develop broad donor bases both in and out of the state. This diminishes the clout of any one contributor. Mr. Moneybags may give the candidate only $1,000. Even if he can convince a few of his friends to cough up a similar amount, he doesn’t have enough power to push anyone around.

The identifiable constituencies with some influence on Vermont Democrats – public employee and teachers unions, environmental organizations—are not political hard-ball players. The teachers union (the Vermont National Education Association) is likely to endorse one of the contenders next week, spokesman Darren Allen said, but it made no effort to urge any candidate to drop out.

(Montpelier scuttlebutt, for what it is worth, holds that Racine or Dunne is the most likely endorsee).

Along with worrying about what Terry called a “bloodletting” that could tarnish the image of the eventual primary winner, it is the financial implications of the five-person field that Democrats worry about most.

“The winner will be financially exhausted August 24 (Primary Day),” Terry said, while Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the unopposed Republican, “will have more than a million in the bank.” Like other Democrats, Terry wondered whether his party’s nominee would still be able to raise money from a possibly exhausted Democratic donor base.

But Davis said he thought the Democratic winner wouldn’t have to spend much on the campaign because it made little sense to buy broadcast television time during a summer campaign that will likely end with a low-turnout primary.

“I think it might not be a good investment,” he said. “I would be surprised if a candidate spent more than $50,000 (buying television time).”

Stressing direct mail, phone banks and personal campaigning, Davis said, a Democrat might win the primary after spending only about $350,000, perhaps keeping competitive with Dubie for the fall campaign, which should cost each candidate somewhat more than another million dollars.

Another possible bright (or at least less dark) spot for the Democrats is that five-person races don’t often remain real five-person races. Within the next few weeks, two or three of the candidates, based on poll results and fund-raising reports, are likely to pull away from the others. The also-rans will then find it harder to raise money or be taken seriously (though perhaps also to resist the temptation to go on the attack.)

“By early July, we’ll know,” Davis said.

Leaving one more question: Just what will we know?

Jon Margolis

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  • Jim Mulligan

    Think in terms of drawing straws….

  • Bob Zeliff

    It is near to the time where having 5 democratic contender will be become extremely counter productive. It seems there is no real Democratic Party leadership to streamline this process, for economic reasons if nothing else. I find it hard to believe that the condentors beleave they all can endure a 5 way primary and come out unscathed before the real election. Are there any of them that believe more in the Democratic cause more than thier personnal ambition? It is funny that some complain that Dubie will not debate them? Why waste his breath when they will do the dirty work for him.

  • Ross Laffan

    Why are Eric Davis and Garrison Nelson the only political scientist ever consulted about Vermont politics? They can’t be the only political science professors in Vermont.

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