It’s safe to bet on the Democrats to maintain control of Vermont’s House and Senate in the upcoming election.
But legislative races throughout the state will offer new insight into how politics is changing at a more local level, through winning margins and seat counts, but also through the people Vermonters are choosing to represent them in Montpelier.
Some of the most historic results are all but preordained. In Winooski’s House race, Taylor Small is set to become Vermont’s first openly transgender House member. And Kesha Ram is on the doorstep of becoming Vermont’s first woman of color in the Senate.
But there is plenty of competition elsewhere. Can the Democrats knock off Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe? Or will Republicans score the ultimate prize and beat out the Speaker of the House, Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, on her home turf?
We’re expecting plenty of surprises on Nov. 3, but here are a few races that could leave a lasting impression.
Sen. Cheryl Hooker broke the Republican hold on Rutland’s three Senate seats with a win in 2018. And Democrats think they have a real shot of flipping another of the county’s three seats on Nov. 3.
A total of 10 candidates are vying for the three seats: three Democrats, three Republicans, and four independents. Hooker and Sen. Brian Collamore, a Republican and the country’s senior senator, are looking to keep their seats. Sen. James McNeil, R-Rutland, retired, leaving one seat up for grabs.
Also in the race: Democrats Greg Cox and Larry Courcelle, Republicans Terry Williams and Joshua Terenzini, and independents Michael Shank, Brittany Cavacas, Casey Jennings and Rick Lenchus. Cox came in second to Hooker among Democratic candidates in 2018.
The Rutland County election could very well end like the Chittenden County Senate primary a few months ago, which remained too close to call until all votes were counted.
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Should Sen. John Rodgers be worried about filing too late for the primary, leading him to run as an independent for the general election? It depends on who you ask. Some say his reelection is “in doubt,” but the incumbent says he isn’t concerned.
“Quite frankly, I have people tell me all the time that I’m the only Democrat that they vote for,” he told VTDigger earlier this month. “They like that I don’t follow the party line. I think that there’s enough people who vote for the person (rather than the party), that that won’t be a problem.”
Sen. Bobby Starr, the longtime Troy legislator seeking reelection, is generally seen as having a lock on his seat. The two incumbents face challenges from Democrat Ron Horton of Jay, along with Republicans Russ Ingalls of Newport and Jonathan Morin of Holland.
While few in the Northeast Kingdom expected Rodgers’ election filing mishap, or even his occasional offensive outbursts, to hurt him among voters, some did say the senator risks missing out on party-line voters.
The Essex-Westford House race pits Democrat Alyssa Black, a leading advocate for firearm purchase waiting periods in Vermont, against Republican Bob Bancroft, an outspoken opponent of gun control reforms and Democratic right-to-abortion bills.
Black, 51, a Democrat, told VTDigger last week she’s running against Bancroft because he “consistently votes against the interests” of her district, which includes a section of rural Essex and the town of Westford.
She recalled a discouraging phone call with Bancroft when she started looking into Statehouse activism, in the months after her son, Andrew Black, died by suicide in 2018, hours after buying a gun.
Black said Bancroft “basically told me to go away.”
Bancroft, 73, declined VTDigger’s interview request about the race. The self-employed economist, with a Ph.D. from Purdue University, was first elected to the House in 2014. He beat his Democratic opponent in 2016 by just 60 votes, and ran unopposed in 2018.
Andy Watts, an independent, is also running for the seat this year.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann has so far found a way to hang on in increasingly blue Stowe. Can she do it again, despite the presidential headwinds against Republicans in Vermont?
The Democrats have again recruited a strong candidate: Jo Sabel Courtney, 70, who has lived in Stowe since 1990, and for 10 years was the international marketing and public relations manager for the Stowe Area Association.
“We think that we have a chance in a presidential election year, with Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the ballot, to pick up a seat,” Spencer Dole, who directs the Vermont Democratic Party’s House campaigns, said earlier this month.
Scheuermann, who is wrapping up her 14th year in the Vermont House, says the race is “going to be tough, just like two years ago,” when she beat Democrat Marina Meerburg by 87 votes.
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But she thinks voters will look beyond national politics when considering the Stowe House race. “We’re confident that they will continue to look at the people running, and the work I’ve done,” she said.
Democrats say it’s not just the House speakership that could be at stake in the Grand Isle House race; Rep. Mitzi Johnson of South Hero is also the only representative of the district’s island communities.
The lone Grand Isle senator, Dick Mazza, is a Colchester resident. And Johnson’s seatmate for the last session, Rep. Leland Morgan, a Republican, is a Milton resident. So is his brother, Michael Morgan, who for the second election running is looking to knock off the speaker.
The Morgans represent a relatively new slice of the district, most of which is made up of the Grand Isle County islands that divide Vermont and New York in Lake Champlain. In 2002, the legislative area was redistricted to include a section of western Milton, where both Morgans reside.
Johnson has seen a narrowing voting margin as her prestige has grown in Montpelier. In 2014, she won reelection by just 31 votes. In 2016, she won by 103 votes, then with a slightly higher count in 2018.
In an interview earlier this month, the speaker — who this year is running alongside Democrat Andy Julow of Grand Isle — dismissed concerns from her own supporters about this year’s challenge.
“Every year I get anxiety from my supporters, right? Every year they’re worried about the number of yard signs that are out there or, you know, if somebody’s doing enough,” she said.
“My attitude in a campaign is that voters have a choice, right? That’s the core of our democracy is that voters have the choice,” she said. “I do not take that for granted.”
If Rep. Cynthia Browning loses her House seat on Nov. 3, she can blame it on her quorum call in late March, forcing 76 fellow reps into the chamber just as the Covid-19 pandemic was emerging.
Speaker Mitzi Johnson stripped Browning of her coveted seat on the House Ways and Means Committee and left the Bennington rep in legislative purgatory for the ensuing months. And Browning decided to go independent rather than risk losing a Democratic primary challenge.
Browning said in August she doesn’t regret calling for the quorum to pass a provision that would make a fundamental rule change, allowing the body to vote remotely.
“It’s really important to follow the rules in democracy,” Browning said. “You can’t throw the rules overboard in an emergency without much more careful thought.”
Rep. Kathleen James, a writer and nonprofit manager, is running on a joint Democratic ticket with Seth Bongartz, a lawyer and state legislator in the 1980s, who said his own run was prompted by Browning’s Covid-19 quorum call.
“She didn’t get her way, so she threw a tantrum,” Bongartz said. “To force people back to Montpelier in the middle of the pandemic, as we were just figuring out how dangerous it was, is really, in my view, I just looked at it as alienating everybody for no purpose.”
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