Ready or Not--Vermont 2016

by Hamilton E. Davis

    If you think it’s just terrible that political campaigns go on so long, don’t read this story. It will ruin your day. If you’re into political reality, however, then you need to know this: the 2016 election in Vermont is well underway.
   With the 2014 election just over a month behind us, Phil Scott, the Republican lieutenant governor who won re-election handily, is already under heavy pressure to run against Gov. Peter Shumlin two years from now. Elected in 2010, Scott has coasted along in the second spot in Vermont government without any sign of strong political ambition or deep interest in any particular policy area.
   Scott is the only proven Republican vote-getter at the state level, however, and given Shumlin’s extraordinarily poor performance in the November election, Scott’s allies are pushing him to make more political appearances and to begin laying the foundation for a run for the top spot.
   That means more than just pounding the political streets, which he is already doing. His supporters, and the press, will expect him to become the leader of his party. That in turn will require him to step to the forefront on such policy hairballs as single-payer health care reform and education finance. There isn’t much heavy lifting involved in the lieutenant governorship, but the agenda in the coming legislative session is heavy indeed, so if Scott is serious he needs to be doing lots of homework now.
   While center-right Republicans, and no small number of Democrats, love Phil Scott, far-right Republicans don’t. So the early steps by Scott are generating pressure on the Republican right to look for a candidate of their own much earlier than they would otherwise.
   The key player there is Darcie Johnston, a long-time GOP operative, who ran former state Sen. Randy Brock’s unsuccessful challenge to Shumlin in 2012, and who supported the Libertarian candidate, Dan Feliciano, in this year’s race. Johnston and her conservative cohorts will have to decide soon how to deal with a Scott candidacy.
   Johnston pleaded with Brock to run this year, but he refused. So she and other prominent conservatives shifted to Feliciano. He got only 4 percent or so of the vote, but he was far more coherent than Scott Milne. So what do leaders on the far right do? Do they try again with Brock, if he’ll go? Do they accept Scott, hoping to push him to the right? Do they try to build Feliciano’s credentials to the point that he could win a Republican primary? Or do they simply look for another horse to ride?
   One decision that doesn’t have to be made is what to do about Scott Milne, who came within a hair’s-breadth of defeating Shumlin last month. Milne’s performance had very little to do with him and pretty much everything to do with disappointment in Shumlin. Moreover, Milne has acted like a political dingbat both before and after the election. So he is likely to just disappear.
   Shumlin, meanwhile, is in a strange position for a sitting governor. After winning his third election, he should be free to focus on strengthening his management team and getting ready to drive ahead on his major policy objectives, particularly single-payer health care reform.
   Instead, he has to let his team and his supporters know that he’ll run again in 2016. He won’t announce that publically, of course; but there has been considerable speculation that he is too disheartened by the 2014 election to run, and he has to lay that speculation to rest.
   Moreover, Shumlin can’t afford to wait until 2016 to begin building his re-election effort. He has to begin now, because it wouldn’t be safe — not even close to safe — to assume that he couldn’t be beaten in 2016. We discussed this in Shumlin Redux.
    Rebuilding his standing with the state’s voters will be unusually tough, because the atmosphere around the single-payer issue is already pretty toxic. And given the signs that the introduction of single-payer legislation in January may not go smoothly, the political environment for Shumlin could get worse before it gets better.
   Political ripples from the 2014 election will reach beyond the governorship. One of the most important players in the political firmament is House Speaker Shap Smith. A Democrat, Smith will preside over one of the most complex and difficult policy agendas in Vermont history, while considering his own political future. If Shumlin doesn’t run, should he try to seize the top spot? If Shumlin does run and Scott runs against him, Smith would have to decide whether to run for lieutenant governor or perhaps attorney general.
   That calculus in turn rests on such questions as whether Bill Sorrell, the current attorney general and a Democrat, runs for re-election. Smith would not run against Sorrell; but if Sorrell steps down, then T.J. Donovan, the Democratic state’s attorney in Chittenden County who ran a strong if losing primary campaign against Sorrell in 2012, could try again for statewide office.
   Smith will have to parse these questions at the same time that he is grappling with Shumlin’s health reform monster, as well as with education financing and property tax reform. The speaker has already told some legislators that in the current session he will adopt the following priorities: education, education financing, jobs, and health care, in that order.
   He also is committed, however, to giving Shumlin’s single-payer project a fair hearing. Can he do all that at once? Possibly, if not easily. One route would be to conflate education finance with health care reform: health insurance is a huge burden for Vermont school districts and successful health care reform could ease those pressures markedly.
   A critical question for Smith is the way that he and the legislature assess the quality of the health care proposal that Shumlin drops on them at the end of this month. If the conceptual plan -- and the depth and solidity of the details — are compelling, then Smith has to be all in. If they are shaky, all bets are off.  
   Out on the left wing, the Progressives will have to decide whether to take advantage of a markedly roiled political environment to push one of their number forward.  Dean Corren, a former state representative from Burlington who ran as a Democrat against Scott this year, could claim precedence for something like the lieutenant governorship. While his poor performance this fall would be held against him, the Progressives have never lost their taste for third party candidacies. Just last week, for example, the Progressives decided to run Steve Goodkind, a former Burlington city engineer, against Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, who is seeking re-election in March. There is no Republican in the race, yet. Regardless of whether one appears, Goodkind will stay in the race.
   Even further out on the political margins, the uncertainty at the governorship level has to be stirring political calculations. The Republicans could seek out a potentially stronger candidate than Scott, Brock, or Feliciano.
   The business community is growing more critical of Shumlin. A business publication recently ran blistering critiques of single payer by a spokesman for National Life, and by Bruce Lisman, who has run a government advocacy website for the last couple of years.
   The state Republican Party has been searching desperately for a truly credible gubernatorial candidate since Jim Douglas retired in 2010. Brock was certainly credible, but 2012 was a terrible year for Republicans in Vermont, and Brock’s showing (38 percent of the vote) was poor. So they could keep looking. A possibility might be state Sen. Kevin Mullin of Rutland. Mullin is pretty conservative, but he is widely respected, and he has already played an important role in drafting the single-payer law.
   On the Democratic side, the Shumlin difficulties almost certainly are stirring ambitions on the party’s bench. As we have seen, Shap Smith could step up. But he is not the only one.
   State Sen. Tim Ashe of Chittenden County might think about it: he very nearly won the Democratic nomination for mayor of Burlington three years ago and as chair of Senate Finance he is well positioned to play a major role on single payer, and indeed, on any financial issue that galvanizes the legislature. Another possibility is Sue Minter, Shumlin’s secretary of transportation.
   You get the idea: At the roots of the political system lots of things are already in motion. The public won’t pay attention till 2016, but two years is none too long to build a campaign for a tough election. Which is what 2016 looks like it will turn out to be.