Margolis: The inevitable Phil Scott

Phil Scott
Republican Phil Scott makes his gubernatorial victory speech Tuesday evening at the Sheraton hotel in South Burlington. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
(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.

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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]

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  • Paul Denton

    You didn’t mention the ferocious opposition of anti-wind Democrats, including some elected officials, in opposing Minter. This includes many who are horrified by the the willingness of the administration and PSB to ignore local wishes in wind turbine siting situations.

  • Quote: “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.”

    Anyone who suggests that Governor-elect Phil Scott ran on “platitudes” never bothered to do their homework as the campaign website was overflowing with real and extensive policy initiatives which the campaign released regularly throughout the long campaign. Phil Scott inspired me and a majority of Vermonters with his goodness and integrity something very much lacking across the current administration.

  • Joe Perry

    or how about her views on gun control?

    • Irene Stewart

      Or what about Minter’s quest to increase taxes on ALL Vermonters by tens of millions of dollars, including a carbon tax, a services tax, a new tax on banks that would have passed down to all residents, increased taxes for a pre-K program, etc. Totally unrealistic, for Vermonters, and seniors who are the highest taxed retirees in the country. Most everyone wants things that sound great, but they cannot afford, so they do not buy them. Minter wanted new programs, free tuition for example, but never realized that they were not affordable. I don’t think many seniors would have voted for this.

  • Jamie Carter

    Mr. Margolis would have us all believe that Minter lost the race rather than Scott won. I guess it’s a matter of perspective, but I think the majority of voters who cast votes for Phil voted for him, rather then against Minter. It’s not that lost Minter lost the race, Scott just won it. Kudos to Minter who actually put up alot more fight then most people anticipated. And, she may have actually squeaked it out had she not tried to portray the most likable politician in Vermont as a bad person hell bent on taking away your right to abortion, as someone determined to harm you children, etc.

    Negative campaigns have never worked well.

  • Matthew Patterson

    Scott’s position on Act 46, school choice and the State Board of Education overreach had a significant impact on his numbers, IMO

  • Gerry Silverstein

    “…this is still decidedly a democratic state”. 90% of the budget shortfalls in the last 2 years were due to the massive expansion of medicaid following passage of the ACA. Costs for that program will grow even more this year, as the government will only cover 95% of costs of newly enrolled Medicaid patients, AND the GMCB’s recent recommendation to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates. Nationally Medicaid is costing $500 billion and will approach $1 trillion by 2025 (unless changes are made). If Vt democratic legislators do not find a way to control social welfare spending, this “decidedly democratic state” may not be that way forever.”

    “Minter was more energetic, more specific, more aggressive”. So was Peter Shumlin and organizations like VPIRG… and how has that turn out for Vermont (brutalized ridge-lines so RECs can be sold out of state by green capitalists, and a Public Service Board that has little respect for the health and well-being of the individual Vermonter).

  • Judith Sargent

    Margolis, a lot of us are proud of Vermont for passing such a well crafted food labeling law to protect the food system and our health. We should be proud we tried to keep big money limited in political campaigns. It’s a shame these efforts were later shot down, but feel proud to be living in an honest state that tried for higher levels of honesty with these laws.

  • Neil Johnson

    We have some unique opportunities now with Phil Scott in office. The federal government will have his back now with support from our new President/House and Senate. For one we would transform healthcare with Captive Insurance, for many states and organizations other than our own. If we had put in Milne we would have had even more support from Washington.

    We have some great opportunities with Phil Scott, I’m so happy he’s our new governor.

  • Jon,
    In my opnion, this commentary enforces my belief that you just don’t get it when it comes to the reasons why Vermonters vote the way they do. Phil Scott won because the majority of Vermonters thought he was the best candidate and they couldn’t care less about Trump being a republican “at the top of the ticket.” You wrote “that scott didn’t run an ispired campaign. He was long on generalities (if not down right plaitudes) and short on specifics.” This statement appalls me. I don’t remember Sue Minter giving any specifics about her plans to improve Vermonts economy by spending state money to study the problem. I agree with Scott’s “generalities” more than I agree with Sue Minters “generalities.” I will take a candidate that is honest an realistic over a egomaniac candidate like Peter Shumlin who promises many things and produces next to nothing..

  • Paul Kenny

    As a regular commentator here, I am thrilled that Phil Scott was elected governor. Note that despite the pollsters flawed predictions it was not a “dead-heat” race. Ditto for the national election where “fed-up” middle class working Americans voted for leadership offering a bettter quality of life where we have decent paying jobs, affordable health care and lower taxes. As for wind development it is OVER IN VERMONT and most likely in America since Donald Trump has vowed to remove all federal tax credits. A Great Day for Vermonters. Congrats to all. This should be my final comments here. Kudos to VT Digger for providing this wonderful forum. Thank you!

  • Ryley Hayes

    Minter was doomed as soon she took Michael Bloomberg’s money and called gun control a “top priority.” That’s not to say its the only reason she lost. But it might have been a tight race otherwise. Instead, she got buried by 9 points. In Essex, Orleans, Caledonia, Grand Isle, Franklin, and Rutland counties, more people voted for Donald Trump than for Sue Minter.

    Vermont is absolutely a Democratic state. But it’s also a heavily rural state, and rural voters tend to frown upon politicians suggesting we ban the most popular rifle in the country.

  • Steve Merrill

    I’m with Ryley & Joe Perry, It’s the guns, stupid, as in leave us ALONE and keep your “background checks” that would MANDATE a “broker” (FFL Licensee) for every firearm one would gift, swap, sell, or hand down to our kids even. How much would these “brokers” charge for their “services”? At an event w/Bernie in Newport 2 weeks ago, their last stop of the day, NOBODY would allow questions, NONE! They had time, they just didn’t CARE to answer any. The only reason Zuckerman got elected was that Randy Brock is NOT telegenic, coming across as old & angry, which isn’t him at all. But they WON’T get the message, Baruth is gearing up for another shot at “gun control” for this session, just say NO (or Nyet!). SM,N.Troy.