Margolis: In Vermont, it’s never too late to be re-elected

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is’s political columnist.

State's Attorney TJ Donovan, who is challenging Bill Sorrell to take over the Attorney General's office. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

State's Attorney TJ Donovan, who lost to incumbent Bill Sorrell in the Democratic primary for attorney general. VTD File Photo/Taylor Dobbs

He’s younger. He’s more forceful and more energetic. He has a broader vision. He has a new outlook. He’d replace the tired old establishment with fresh, innovative ideas.

He lost.

It was close, but Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan came up just short of replacing longtime incumbent Attorney General Bill Sorrell as the Democratic Party’s candidate for attorney general.

“Time for a change,” was the de facto (and sometimes the spoken) motto of Donovan’s campaign.

Not yet, said the voters. Not yet and not here.

No surprise. This is, after all, Vermont, where most people are not mad as hell and seem quite happy to keeping taking it – whatever “it” may be – indefinitely. Unlike so much of the rest of the country, Vermont is neither anti-establishment nor anti-incumbent. Established incumbents usually win here.

In fact, not one of them lost Tuesday. All four Chittenden County Democratic state senators won re-nomination. So did Sen. Mark MacDonald of Williamstown. So, in fact, did 90-year-old Rep. Bill Aswad, who was challenged in his Burlington district. In the musical comedy world, “it’s never too late to fall in love.” In Vermont, it’s never too late to be re-elected.

While “throw the rascals out” may be the de facto motto of voters in many states, Vermonters tend to throw their rascals right back into office.

OK, Bill Sorrell is too law-abiding and too bland to be considered a rascal. But he is the established incumbent, and that proved to be just enough to keep him in office assuming (a fairly safe assumption) that he beats Republican candidate Jack McMullen in November.

It isn’t that no intra-party challenge can ever succeed in the state. It’s just that it’s hard, which perhaps explains why no incumbent Democrat elected statewide has ever lost a primary. Before they oust an incumbent, Vermont voters apparently want to know what’s wrong with him or her, and why the challenger would be such an improvement. The burden of argument, then, is on the challenger, who has to make a convincing case to the voters that the incumbent doesn’t deserve another term. Donovan couldn’t quite make that case.

It wasn’t as though the two differed over any major issue. They hardly differed on any issue at all. Essentially, Donovan argued that he would be more energetic and aggressive than Sorrell. In reaction, Sorrell became somewhat more energetic and aggressive than he had been, diminishing the difference between the two.

Donovan’s failure does not constitute a Sorrell triumph. A 700-vote margin out of roughly 42,000 votes cast is far short of a glowing endorsement. Considering that he was better known and started out far ahead in the only public poll, it’s reasonable to conclude that there is more relief than celebration in the winner’s camp.

In fact, the outcome might have been a humbling experience for both men, neither of whom exudes humility. If Sorrell had been taking voter support for granted and assuming he did not have to pay attention to public opinion, this close call was possibly enough to make him pay attention. If Donovan was too much the young man in a hurry, his pace has been slowed. And just possibly, the smugness of some of his more avid supporters has been shaken.

Donovan ran a good campaign. In debates with Sorrell, the challenger was the more forceful (if often the less articulate) contender. Considering that he was going up against an entrenched incumbent, Donovan amassed an impressive list of endorsements from senior legislators such as Sen. Dick Sears and Rep. Bill Lippert, the chairs of the Judiciary Committees and prominent Republicans such as Sen. Peg Flory of Rutland and Mayor Thom Lauzon of Barre.

He also got the support of the State Labor Council, the State Troopers Association, the Sheriff’s Association, the Professional Firefighters, the Abenaki Indians and even – don’t laugh – the association of Vermont Archaeologists.

OK, laugh. But in a low turnout primary, a commitment from 20 or 30 people who will call their neighbors, friends and relatives can be pivotal, if less important than the help from those larger organizations.

Donovan even got the support of several major newspapers: the Waterbury Record, the Stowe Reporter, the St. Albans Messenger, the Valley News, and the biggest of all, the Burlington Free Press.

The results provide further evidence that the endorsement of newspaper editorial pages is all but worthless. Only on down-ballot races where voters know little about the candidates do many people seek guidance from their local paper. Just consider that the Democrat endorsed by the Free Press in this year’s mayoral election finished last in a four-person field and the Republican the paper backed in the general election lost to Democrat Miro Weinberger.

Donovan “achieved” one other goal. Or, perhaps more accurately, the one condition he needed to have a chance of winning came about: the low turnout. That Castleton Polling Institute survey that came out last week was probably accurate in suggesting that had most Democratic and Democratic-leaning Vermonters gone to the polls, Sorrell would have won easily.

He didn’t because they didn’t. Those 42,000 or so voters represent a little more than 9 percent of the state’s registered voters, and less than 9 percent of the voting age population of just about 500,000. It’s a larger percentage of the Democratic voters, but less than half the 24 percent (105,000 people) who voted in the Democratic primary in 2010, the first time the vote was held in August instead of September.

Because a September primary raises the possibility that absentee ballots for soldiers serving overseas could not be prepared in time, and therefore in violation of federal law, the choice confronting the state would seem to be moving the primary to May or June, which would substantially alter Vermont’s political timetable, or continuing to have low-turnout primaries in which a small but passionate minority could choose candidates less likely to win in November.

Not a problem for Democrats this year. But in politics as in most of the rest of life, nothing stays the same for long.

Jon Margolis

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  • One thing Joe did not comment on, re TJ Donovan, is the difference in “presence” between Sorrel and TJ. Sorrel was friendly looking in the debates I saw, while TJ (he doesn’t even have a first name for goodness sake)seemed slick, stacatto, too political.

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