Margolis: Coming out of the gate, GOP already a nose behind

Sen. Randy Brock submitted his petition to get on the ballot as a gubernatorial candidate. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs
Sen. Randy Brock submits his petition to get on the ballot as a gubernatorial candidate. VTD file photo/Taylor Dobbs

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political analyst.

Another name or two could still trickle in from the town clerks, but basically the names and numbers of who is and who isn’t running for the Legislature is set, and who isn’t running seems more important than who is.

Who isn’t running are Republicans.

Not that Democrats are contesting every seat in the state’s 13 Senate (one per county except Orleans and Essex are combined) or 104 House districts (most of which choose two members).

But the Republican shortfall is striking. According to the Draft Primary Candidate Listing on the Secretary of State’s website, only 18 Republicans filed to run for the 30-member state Senate and only 78 for the 150-member House of Representatives.

Thirty-three Democrats are running for the Senate. There will be at least 113 Democratic House candidates on the November ballot, said Nick Charyk, the executive director of the Vermont Democratic House campaign. In addition, he said, Democrats decided not to challenge a few Progressive Party incumbent House members who usually vote with Democrats in Montpelier.

Rep. Don Turner of Milton, the Minority Leader of the House, said he counted 84 Republican candidates, and he could be right. Legislative candidates had to file with their town clerks by June 14, and not all the names had arrived by then at the Secretary of State’s office, which is “extremely busy with redistricting and ballot production for the major party primary elections,” one official said, and seems not to have updated the draft list this week.

But Turner did not try to pretend that even 84 House candidates was anything but “disappointing” news for his party.

“We need a better balance of power in Montpelier, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t get more candidates,” Turner said.

That’s not exactly a concession that Republicans have little chance to add very much to their 48-seat House minority (compared with 96 Democrats). But no party leader would ever make such a concession, and Turner’s disappointment illustrates the bleak prospects the Vermont Republican Party confronts this year.

Once the dominant political force in the state, Vermont Republicans now hold no federal offices, only two of the six statewide elected offices and eight of the 30 senators along with their House minority. They will probably hold on to one of those statewide offices; the popular Lt. Gov. Phil Scott starts off as a heavy favorite over little-known Democrat Cassandra Gekas. Veteran state Sen.Vincent Illuzzi could hold the auditor’s seat for the GOP, and the contest between state Treasurer Beth Pearce and Republican Wendy Wilton, Rutland’s City treasurer, is impossible to fathom, much less to predict.

Otherwise, Republicans face what, at the most optimistic, appears to be an uphill climb.

Granted, this is politics, in which anything can happen – a scandal, the sudden emergence of an issue that galvanizes public opinion in a pro-Republican direction, a brilliantly run campaign by Sen. Randy Brock of St. Albans, the Republican candidate for governor, perhaps accompanied by some kind of stumble on the part of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Once the dominant political force in the state, Vermont Republicans now hold no federal offices, only two of the six statewide elected offices and eight of the 30 senators along with their House minority.

Absent such an unforeseeable event, though, Republicans seem to be facing hard times. Under a least optimistic – but entirely plausible – scenario, the GOP could lose all those seats except (probably) Scott’s, and considering their shortage of legislative candidates, actually lose seats in either or both houses. Such an outcome would render the party – at last for a while – insignificant in Vermont government and politics.

One sign of the party’s distress is that some Republicans leaders have decided to react to bad news with the standard response of losers – denial. Specifically, they’re denying the accuracy of the recent poll taken by the Castleton Polling Institute indicating that Shumlin has a high approval rating and a huge lead over Brock.

As Republicans say, that 60-to-27 percent lead of Shumlin’s is a snapshot based partly on name recognition. But Republicans, including state Chairman Jack Lindley, also dismiss the poll’s finding that Shumlin has a 65 percent job approval rating because, as Lindley said, “it’s a poll of registered voters, not likely voters.”

True, and an accepted polling practice at this point in the campaign. Gallup is still polling registered voters. So are the Associated Press-GfK poll and the Quinnipiac Poll.

Besides, in this state, screening for likely voters (a most imprecise tool in any case) might well lead to bigger Democratic margins. Those least likely to vote are the less affluent and less educated. In much of the country, these (non)voters are concentrated in urban slums, whose residents – often non-white – will vote Democratic if they vote. In Vermont, less affluent, less educated voters are more likely to live in historically Republican rural areas.

Republican Lt. Gov.-elect Phil Scott, right, sits with Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin, a Democrat.

An examination of the “internals” of the Castleton poll shows that its sample was an accurate cross-section of Vermont’s population by gender, age, education level, and income distribution. No poll is perfect, but this one looks pretty good, making it hard to dismiss that 65 percent approval rating for the governor. Beating an incumbent with a 50 percent approval rating is all but impossible,so somehow Brock and the Republicans are going to have to chip away at Shumlin’s standing.

The poll, as Lindley noted, illustrates one issue that might help them do that: two-thirds of the respondents agreed with Brock and disagreed with Shumlin that the $21 million in extra payments made to Central Vermont Public Service since 2001 should be rebated to the utility’s customers now that it is being absorbed by Green Mountain Power.

The Public Service board sided with Shumlin, approving the merger with a provision that the $21 million be used to improve energy efficiency. Brock will no doubt campaign on this issue, and it is likely to win him some votes.

How many is not clear. Dave Reville of Vermont AARP, which fought Shumlin on the rebate issue, said CVPS has 135,000 residential customers, which probably means about 200,000 possible voters. But some of them are going to vote Republican anyway, and polls do not show the intensity of opinion on any one issue. It seems unlikely that the rebate alone – stacked up against taxes, schools, the environment, health care, and the Shumlin administration’s good grades for how it handled Tropical Storm Irene and its aftermath – will be what politicians call “a voting issue” for many Vermonters.

Republicans are not even challenging Secretary of State Jim Condos’ re-election, and two-time loser (once in a primary to the less-than-serious Fred Tuttle) Jack McMullen is no threat to Attorney General Bill Sorrell or TJ Donovan should he win the Democratic primary. Scott remains their strong candidate, but Gekas is lively and aggressive, and could make the campaign interesting.

But the most competitive races appear to be those for auditor and treasurer. Illuzzi will run against Doug Hoffer, a skilled policy analyst who ran for the post in 2010 and lost to Tom Salmon, who decided not to run again. After 32 years in the Senate, Illuzzi is better known, and is a far more experienced candidate. In the Rutland area, at least, Wilton is better known than Pearce, who was appointed treasurer in 2011 and who has never run for office. Wilton has.

But both Hoffer and Pearce have one advantage: they’re Democrats. The days of “coat-tails” are long gone; few voters simply follow the party line. But in this presidential election year, many more voters will come to the polls than came in 2010. These people who vote only every four years – the “surge” in political science jargon – are not faithful Democrats or Republicans; those folks vote every year. The “surge” voters appear for presidential elections and vote for … the winner. That’s why the winner wins.

In Vermont this year, there is as close to no doubt as politics allows, that the winners will be Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch, and probably Gov, Shumlin, Democrats all. Farther down the ballot, some of the “surgers” will split their tickets. But some will, at least for that day, be in a Democratic mood. As long as they’re in the polling booth, they’ll vote for Democrats they’ve never heard of for offices they don’t care about.

Not a good omen for Republicans.

As a good state chairman should, Lindley saw only the bright side.

“We have a great lineup,” he said. “I think our candidates are well-positioned to win. We’re going to carry the message of smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation very successfully to the state of Vermont. I’m very enthusiastic.”

He will have to be.

If you read us, please support us.

Comment Policy

VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer.

We moderate every comment. Please go to our FAQ for the full policy.

Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is VTDigger's columnist. He is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. Margolis spent most of his Tribune years in the Washington Bureau as the newspaper’s chief national political correspondent. In 1988, he was a one of the journalists asking questions of Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in their televised vice presidential debate. Before joining the Tribune in 1973, Margolis had been the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971, and spent the entire first night inside the prisoner-held “D” yard. Earlier, Margolis was a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). In addition to The Last Innocent Year, published by William Morrow in 1999, he is the author of How To Fool Fish With Feathers: An Incompleat Guide to Fly Fishing (Simon and Schuster, 1991) and The Quotable Bob Dole — Witty, Wise and Otherwise, (Avon Books, 1995). He also wrote two chapters of Howard Dean: A citizens Guide to the Man Who Would be President (Steerforth, 2003). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the US Army.

Email: [email protected]

Latest stories by Jon

Recent Stories

Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Margolis: Coming out of the gate, GOP already a nose behind"