(Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.)
Let’s hear it for the conventional wisdom.
Which for the past year in Vermont politics has been that Phil Scott, despite being a Republican in a Democratic state, would be the next governor, no matter what.
So he will be, and by a comfortable margin, though he had to overcome a few of those “matters what” that could have scuttled his candidacy.
Start with the drag at the top of the ticket. Donald Trump got only 30 percent of the Vermont vote. It takes quite a strong candidate to outdo the top of his ticket by more than 20 percentage points. Scott managed to do it.
Another “matters what” is that, as the rest of Tuesday’s results confirmed, this is still a decidedly Democratic state. Trump was crushed. Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy easily defeated Scott Milne (who, for what it’s worth, said he’s still interested in running for office again). In the lieutenant governor’s race, Progressive/Democrat David Zuckerman had a harder time against Republican Randy Brock. But Zuckerman prevailed. The Legislature, it seems, will be just about as overwhelmingly Democratic as it has been.
Then add in the fact that Scott didn’t run a very inspired campaign. He was long on generalities (if not downright platitudes) and short on specifics. In the last weeks of the campaign he was outspent and seemingly outmaneuvered by Democrat Sue Minter and her political advisers. Minter was more energetic, more specific, more aggressive. In the final days, she won the endorsement of the state’s major newspapers. She seemed to have the momentum.
It didn’t matter. In the end, nothing mattered. Not Trump, not campaign tactics, not momentum, not the newspapers. Phil Scott was just going to be Vermont’s next governor. Vermonters were ready for something different.
It wasn’t just because everybody liked Scott (though just about everybody did). It wasn’t even just because he’s a moderate Republican, relatively liberal on social issues, the kind of Republican that Democratic-leaning voters can support so they can convince themselves they aren’t down-the-line Democrats, merely people who vote for Democrats most of the time.
In a political culture in which partisanship is condemned, that kind of crossover appeal is invaluable.
Perhaps even more helpful for Scott is that Vermonters may be ready for a more cautious, less adventuresome governor.
For, one might speculate, an anti-Shumlin.
It isn’t that Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin is as unpopular as he was two years ago when he almost lost to the then-obscure Milne. Time has cooled passions, and at least some voters may have learned to appreciate some of Shumlin’s successes in dealing with the opiate addiction and mental health crises.
But Shumlin has also become a symbol of the inclination of some Vermont Democrats to want to set an example for the rest of the country. Years ago, Vermont Democratic reformers pushed through the nation’s toughest limits on campaign donations and spending despite warnings that it would be invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court. It was.
More recently came Shumlin’s plan to create the nation’s first universal health care system and the bill he supported to require labeling of food made with genetically modified organisms.
The governor had to abandon the health care plan because he couldn’t find a way to pay for it. Congress passed its own, milder, version of a labeling law which pre-empts the state’s version. To put it in baseball terms, when it comes to leading the way toward nationwide reform, Vermont Democrats are 0-for-3.
So while there is no polling on the subject, it seems reasonable at least to ponder the possibility that among the messages voters sent Tuesday were that: yes, we are a relatively liberal state with generous social services and strong environmental protections (think of all those re-elected Democrats). But maybe we should take care of ourselves without trying to set an example for the rest of the country, especially because the rest of the country seems unimpressed by our examples.
If that was the message (or part of it), Scott is the perfect governor for it. He’s a fan of very gradual progress, so gradual that some Vermonters might consider it regress. He is not much for major breakthroughs. His ambitions seem as modest as his demeanor.
They may have to be. He will be facing a legislative majority with an outlook decidedly to the left of his. It will not be easy for him to get lawmakers to cut spending as much as he would like, or to approve some of the business-oriented tax cuts he thinks are important.
Fortunately for both sides, most of those lawmakers have worked with Scott in the past. Most of them like him and trust him to keep his word, meaning there are ample opportunities for compromise.
In the last weeks of the campaign, Minter was the more aggressive candidate. Perhaps too aggressive. After some of the candidate debates, especially the Vermont Public Radio debate last week, some voters found Minter’s constant attacks on Scott too shrill for their taste.
Perhaps that’s one reason Minter lost Waterbury, where she lives.
As to those newspaper endorsements that were a sign of Minter’s late “momentum,” well, they didn’t seem to matter at all.
Perhaps because newspapers don’t matter much anymore. It isn’t just that people are not swayed by their editorial endorsements; it’s that people hardly read them. Two of the Minter endorsers — the jointly owned Rutland and Barre-Montpelier papers — don’t even print every day. And the Burlington Free Press barely covered the campaign.
This could be historic. Has there ever before been an election in any state in which the state’s largest newspaper decided not to bother running stories about most of the debates or other campaign events? When it comes to politics, the Free Press might as well not exist.
No wonder not many voters paid attention to its endorsement.