Margolis: True blue in the Green Mountain State

Vermont Democratic Party 2012 election night headquarters at the Hilton Hotel in Burlington.

Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political analyst.

This is easy.

Wanna win an election in Vermont?

You don’t have to spend oodles of money. You don’t have to exude charisma or have a scintillating personality. You don’t even need a brilliant strategic plan.

You just need to be a Democrat.

OK, technically, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, re-elected with a whopping 71 percent of the vote, is an independent. But he caucuses in Washington with Senate Democrats, was endorsed by Vermont Democrats, and appeared at their victory bash Tuesday. For all practical purposes, he’s a Democrat.

And if you absolutely have to be a Republican, be like Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, every Democrat’s favorite Republican, a quasi-official member of the Democratic governor’s cabinet, and the only Republican who won a statewide office.

Even then, it helps to have an underfunded opponent whose name was unknown to almost everyone. Despite those handicaps, rookie candidate Cassandra Gekas acquitted herself rather well. In fact (though results are still trickling in from some towns), she seems to have gotten about as many votes as the year’s Great Republican Hope, treasurer candidate Wendy Wilton, who failed to live up to expectations. Gekas would appear to have a political future. She’s energetic and articulate.

The region is, at least for the near future, strongly Democratic and generally center-left in its political outlook. In this context, Vermont is just like the rest of the Northeast, but more so.

Oh, and she’s a Democrat. She ran as a Progressive/Democrat, but she got as many votes as she did largely because most Vermonters were in a Democratic frame of mind Tuesday.

Otherwise, auditor-elect Doug Hoffer probably would not have edged out Republican Sen. Vince Illuzzi, who has represented the Northeast Kingdom since roughly the Pleistocene era, and who was endorsed by leading Democrats as well as Republicans and a host of unions and other organizations. Illuzzi is an accomplished campaigner. Hoffer is not. Illuzzi radiates optimism and charm. Hoffer, as one active Democrat noted, tends to be “dour.”

But Vermonters came to the polls Tuesday primarily to vote for Barack Obama, who won some 65 percent of the vote, his second biggest margin after Hawaii, where he was (really) born, and where he got 70 percent, and also to vote for Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch (about 71 percent) and Gov. Peter Shumlin (56 percent). While they were at it, most of them just voted Democratic down the line, except for the popular Republican Scott, choosing Hoffer, Treasurer Beth Pearce, Attorney General Bill Sorrell, and Secretary of State Jim Condos, whom the Republicans did not even oppose.

The lieutenant governor is now clearly Vermont’s leading Republican, and it will be interesting to see whether he continues to ally himself so closely with Shumlin or begins putting some distance between himself and the governor with an eye toward opposing Shumlin in 2014.

The Democratic tide flowed as far as the state Legislature, where Democrats actually extended their “super-majority” in the House of Representatives from 94 to 96 (out of 150), and may have picked up one seat in the state Senate. In the Northeast Kingdom, the seat Illuzzi held for more than 30 years will be filled by Democrat John Rodgers. When all the votes are tallied, the Republicans may pick up a seat in Franklin County, but that would still leave them on the short end of a 23-7 margin.

Vermonters may have been unusually Democratic this week, but no state is an island, and Vermont voters were in tune with their neighbors. Obama and other Democratic candidates swept the region. In Maine, voters elected to the Senate independent Angus King who, like Sanders, is expected to caucus with the Democrats (though he still declined to announce a commitment Tuesday night). Maine voters also approved legalizing same-sex marriage.

To get back into the game, they (Republicans) are going to have to find another issue. Until they do, the easiest way to get elected in this state is to be a Democrat.

Across the river in New Hampshire, Democrats held the governorship, and two Democrats (both women, as is the governor-elect) ousted Republican congressmen. Across the lake in upstate New York Democratic Congressman Bill Owens beat back a challenge in the historically Republican district he first captured in a special election in 2009. In Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren took back the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat Scott Brown had captured in the anti-Obama fervor of 2010.

Though final results will not be clear until the exit polls are tabulated, earlier polling indicated that the Northeast is the only part of the country in which most non-Hispanic whites supported Obama. Though there are a few Republican and conservative islands, mostly in upstate New York and rural Pennsylvania, the region is, at least for now and the near future, strongly Democratic and generally center-left in its political outlook. In this context, Vermont is just like the rest of the Northeast, but more so.

This year, Vermonters even seemed to possess immunity against the high-priced hucksterism of political advertising. If Lenore Broughton, the Burlington heiress who financed the Vermonters First super PAC, was not the big loser in the campaign, she certainly lost the most money, donating almost $1 million to pay for TV and radio commercials, newspaper ads, and mailings, all of which apparently accomplished nothing.

Perhaps they did not send the right message. Vermont voters do not seem to care that one party dominates the state; they are, after all, the very same voters who chose the candidates of that party to represent them. Nor do they seem all that unhappy about the taxes they pay. Nobody likes high taxes. But they do like the good schools, paved roads, and social services those taxes pay for, and they appear to understand that they can’t have those public good without paying for them.

None of which means the electorate would embrace major tax hikes. Throughout the campaign, Shumlin kept bragging that his administration had not raised “broad-based taxes” on income, sales, or property. The more liberal Democrats could inspire a Republican revival if they insist on major tax increases. But simply complaining about the current tax structure does not seem to be doing much good for Republicans and conservatives at the ballot box. To get back into the game, they are going to have to find another issue. Until they do, the easiest way to get elected in this state is to be a Democrat.

Jon Margolis

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