Walters: The eternal sunshine of Phil Scott

Phil Scott
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, left, and Gov. Phil Scott have a moment before Scott delivered his State of the State address on Jan. 9. Zuckerman and former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe are running to oppose Scott this fall. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

John Walters is a political columnist for VTDigger.

After three-plus years in office, Republican Gov. Phil Scott remains broadly popular. Despite the fact that he’s in the minority on many issues, he would be reelected in a walk if the election were held today. 

So says a recent VPR-Vermont PBS poll, which found that Scott was rated favorably by 57% of those surveyed — and that the vast majority oppose his positions on issues like paid family leave, increasing the minimum wage and a wealth tax to fight climate change. 

“I don’t know what to say. It seems illogical,” said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, chair of the Vermont Progressive Party. “Does it mean people are less concerned with issues than with likability?”

After a moment of thought, Pollina answered his own question. “People vote for Phil and Bernie [Sanders] at the same time,” he said. “Vermonters really do respond to the person more than the policy.” 

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, gets a little emotional when speaking of his regard for the governor. “The most important thing is trust,” Mazza said. “Of all the issues I’ve discussed with him, I’ve never had reason to doubt his honesty.” 

Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs Brittney Wilson, who managed Scott’s two gubernatorial campaigns, talked of a recent encounter between the governor and a young woman who confronted him about climate change. “He spent at least 20 minutes talking to her,” Wilson recalled. “A lot of people wanted to greet him, but he didn’t use it as an excuse to end the conversation.”  

Scott himself takes an aw-shucks approach to the question. “All I can do is be who I am,” Scott said at a Feb. 20 press conference. “I’m not conservative enough for some, not liberal enough for others.” 

Even those seeking to defeat Scott agree that the governor is a Nice Guy. 

“Great, he’s a nice guy,” said former education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. “But Vermonters need a governor who’s going to work on their behalf.” 

Holcombe and fellow Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman face a tough task: How do you successfully campaign against Mr. Integrity? Holcombe believes the issues will win out over personality. But Democratic candidates had the same apparent edge in 2016 and 2018, and Scott won both elections easily. 

“The attacks haven’t worked. That speaks to his personality and character,” Wilson said. Especially in a time of vicious politics on the national level, Wilson added. “The authenticity of the governor is even more important. Civility and respect: We need that now more than ever.” 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Holcombe. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Zuckerman believes he is Scott’s equal in decency and respect, and that gives him an advantage on other challengers. 

“People feel the same about both of us,” Zuckerman said. “That will take it to the issues.” And on the issues, Zuckerman is confident that he wins. “The poll didn’t make me nervous,” he said. “The issues have barely been talked about in the context of a campaign.”

To prove his point, Zuckerman contrasts two poll results. Scott is viewed favorably by 57% of responders — but in a head-to-head match-up, Scott gets 52% of the vote to Zuckerman’s 29%. Glass half full, says the lieutenant governor. “Without even starting a campaign, my leadership on the issues has reduced his level of support,” Zuckerman said. 

Let’s ask the guy who designed the VPR-VTPBS poll: Rich Clark of Castleton University. Does he see any signs that 2020 will be different? 

“I have no indication of that,” Clark said. He pointed to the partisan breakdown of the results. “Democrats who support some issues Phil Scott has opposed still support him. There are probably many voters who’d like the Democrats to have a veto-proof [legislative] majority who will vote for Phil Scott.” 

When asked if there’s any hope for beating the governor, Clark offered nothing but generalities. “It’s early. No one is talking about the gubernatorial election,” Clark said. “People won’t become engaged in the race until after the August primary.” Even then, he cautioned, national politics are likely to dominate voters’ attention, which makes the challenger’s job even tougher.  

Rich Clark, politocal science professor at Castleton University. Courtesy photo

There’s also evidence in the poll to suggest that Scott might not be as out of step as he appears to be. When asked which issues are of most concern to them, 30% named jobs and the economy, and 10% cited property taxes — two of Scott’s signature issues. No other issue scored higher than 10%. 

Other clues: Results were mixed on climate change. Nearly 60% said the state is doing about enough or too much on climate. Two-thirds of Vermonters supported reforming Vermont’s Act 250 land-use law to encourage downtown development, which Scott supports. And although a solid majority would support a wealth tax to fight climate change, they feel differently when asked a general question about raising taxes for the same purpose. On that question, 51% opposed a tax increase while 44% were in favor. 

In recent history, Vermont’s most successful governors have claimed the center ground. That includes Democrat Howard Dean and Republicans Jim Douglas and Richard Snelling. Dean may have run for president as a progressive — or “a member of the Democratic wing of the Democratic party,” as he put it. But as governor, Dean was a fiscal conservative who engaged in frequent battles with the Democratic Legislature. 

Scott’s claim to the center is underscored in the VPR-VTPBS poll, which found that the governor had stronger favorability numbers among independents (65%) and Democrats (58%) than among Republicans (54%). In an age of hyper-partisanship, that’s truly remarkable. 

Holcombe and Zuckerman are clearly presenting themselves as progressive alternatives to Scott, in the belief that there’s a market for that. But many a Democratic and Progressive candidate has learned the hard way that even in deep-blue Vermont, the center usually holds the balance of power.

And many an issue-positive candidate has failed the test of authenticity.

Phil Scott may be a Republican in the Land of Bernie, but his next electoral defeat would be his first. 

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John Walters

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