by Hamilton E. Davis
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott has sent out fund raising letters to 20,000 Vermont residents, indicating that he is prepared to run for Governor in 2016. Of course, he doesn’t say he has actually decided to run; he’ll see what the results are from the request and make his decision in the fall, he says. But the real decision has been made: you don’t ask 20,000 people to give you money unless you are prepared to spend it.
To date, Scott has been wrestling with such questions as whether he is prepared to change his life style, increasing his political metabolism by orders of magnitude; and whether he wants to shift his involvement with his construction company. It’s fair to assume that his decision to go into fund raising mode demonstrates that he has resolved those questions.
If the fund raising goes badly, then Scott could abandon his quest for the governor’s chair. There is no reason to expect that, however. Scott in recent years has been the most popular candidate the Vermont Republicans have to offer. And the party has been on something of a roll lately, as evidenced by gains in legislative seats in 2014 as well as the near upset of Governor Shumlin by an unusually weak and inept Republican, Scott Milne. Now that Shumlin has announced his decision not to run in 2016, Scott is likely to start out with a solid margin over the two most likely Democratic candidates, House Speaker Shap Smith and Matt Dunne, a strong contender for the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, which was won by Peter Shumlin.
The Democratic contender that might have led Scott to back off was Congressman Peter Welch. The sheer weight of Welch’s long experience and his obvious capability almost certainly would have cleared much of the field: Democratic hopefuls like Dunne and Smith would have conceded the nomination; and any Republican would have faced a huge hill to climb in a state as blue as Vermont in a Presidential year.
Welch’s decision to seek reelection to his Congressional seat opened a clear path to the Fifth Floor of the Pavilion building for Phil Scott. His fund raising letter is a powerful signal that he intends to make a run for it.
An interesting area for speculation in the light of the Scott move will be the reaction of the conservative wing of the GOP. Scott has long been too middle-of-the road for activists like Darcie Johnston and Mark Snelling. They would much prefer a more conservative choice, like former State Sen. Randy Brock or Dan Feliciano, a Chittenden County businessman. But Brock got humiliated by Shumlin in the 2012 contest, and Feliciano garnered just over four percent of the vote 2014 as a Libertarian.
Assuming Scott goes, the conservatives will have to choose between trying to get someone like Brock to run against Scott in a Republican primary, or support Scott and hope to persuade him to move to the right on issues like health care reform. In the wake of the 2014 contest, Darcie Johnston wrote a comment on A Vermont Journal to the effect that she could support Scott under the right circumstances. But that comment was made before Shumlin took himself out of contention. And as readers of the tea leaves know, things can change.
A wild card in the political landscape could be Bruce Lisman, the retired financial services executive from Shelburne. Lisman has said publicly that he is thinking about running, but he hasn’t indicated where he would slot himself politically. He is widely considered to be a Republican, but he has said he is not certain what party banner he would choose. He could, of course, run as an independent, but he would clearly be setting himself up to be a spoiler, drawing votes mainly from Scott rather than the Democrat. He’ll have to come down somewhere by fall or give up the idea of a campaign.
For now, however, the key player in the political sandbox is Phil Scott. So saith the tea leaves, which continue to steep.