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November 03, 2010

Election Analysis: Don't Play with Fire

IMG_1629 If there is any takeaway from Tuesday's elections in Vermont it's this: Don't play with fire.

The governor's race was always Republican Brian Dubie's to lose. Why? He was essentially running as the incumbent — a well-liked lieutenant governor who was the heir apparent to a popular chief executive, Gov. Jim Douglas. In recent polls, Douglas maintains approval ratings in the high 50s, which is rather remarkable given he's been in office almost eight years and has done battle with a very Democratically-controlled Legislature.

In any event, it was his to lose and he did, though not by much.

Shumlin ran an aggressive, smart ground game that, coupled with a strong Democratic get-out-the-vote effort, easily beat back the Dubie campaign's 100,000 door knocks and 11,000-plus Facebook friends.

Chalk that up to homegrown campaign manager Alex MacLean (more on her later).

It also certainly helped Shumlin that the Progressives sat the race out entirely, leaving the Left with a few scant independents to support. And, in the waning days two of those candidates dropped out and backed Shumlin. Every percentage counted in the governor's race, and another five to 10 percent would easily have thrown the race to Dubie.

A quick look at the places where Dubie lost speak volumes. Dubie lost the New North End of Burlington, a conservative-leaning area of Burlington that elects more Republicans than Democrats to its City Council seats (three out of four) and two Democrats to one Republican in the state legislature.

Why did he lose there? After the votes were tallied, Republicans said it was because Dubie ran too many weeks of those fear-mongering "meth dealer" ads on television and doubled-down on ads criticizing Shumlin's character.

That negativity hurt Dubie more than it did Shumlin, who punched back with a crass "Pinocchio" ad. As I've noted before, that's simply because going into this election more people had a negative view of Shumlin as a slick politician than they did of Dubie. Dubie's claim to fame was being Vermont's nice-guy politician. Not anymore.

Shumlin ran an aggressive campaign with some hard-hitting issue ads — but that's different than going after an opponent's character the way Dubie did.

Another key item in play was Dubie's loss of the Professional Firefighters of Vermont as an ally during the crucial get-out-the-vote drive in the last two weeks of campaigning. Dubie's assualts against the Vermont Troopers Association and its union president Det. Sgt. Michael O'Neil didn't sit well with the firefighters — and they let Dubie know it.

By the time Dubie toned down the attacks, it was too late. The firefighters decided to throw the full weight of their efforts into legislative races, including the contest for Secretary of State, where  Democrat Jim Condos was in a tough race against Republican Jason Gibbs. They put up radio ads for Condos and worked the phones and helped with visibility.

Meanwhile, all of those "Firefighters for Dubie" campaign signs semed to largely disappear from the landscape in the waning weeks of the campaign. And none showed up on Dubie's "Final Approach" tour or at his final campaign rally Monday night.

The firefighters were a key difference in Condos' win, and I can only imagine that had they put half that kind of effort into Dubie's campaign that he may be going by "governor elect" today.

Another key difference — both in Condos' win and Dubie's loss — was Democratic turnout in Chittenden County. That was evident in Shumlin's victories, or strong showing, in the county suburbs. That turnout also meant that Republican Charlie Smith was frozen out of the Chittendnen County Senate, a seat many observers (including myself) widely anticipated.

I had thought Smith and Democrat Sally Fox would win the two open seats and that Philip Baruth might be on the bubble (as in seventh place). Instead, Baruth and Fox won out and it was former two-time Democratic Mayoral candidate Andy Montroll who ended up in seventh.

I chalk up that Chittenden Democratic turnout, and Condos' continued name recognition in the county where he served as a senator, to be factors I underestimated when I predicted last week that Gibbs would edge out Condos. It wasn't even close.

That strong Democratic turnout blunted any gains in GOP turnout during a midterm election. While turnout wasn't historic, it was about average in most places, and better than average in others.

As noted above, Dubie lost some of his independent and conservative Democrat allies with his negative tone — more so than I had anticipated. Couple that vote supression with a strong Democratic turnout and you get a Shumlin victory, though it was close.

"We definitely underpeformed in areas where we should have either won, or won with bigger margins," said Bliss, who talked briefly with reporters after Dubie's concession speech.

Part of that underperfmance may have been due to the fact that Democrats were on defense in some key legislative districts in GOP-leaning areas in Bennington, Rutland and Franklin counties. Legislative Democrats in typically GOP districts in Rutland City fended off challenges — barely — but that extra work likely helped bring more Dems out to vote — the kind of Democrats that vote a party line and are less likely to shop around in some of the downticket races.

Overall, the GOP and the Democrats picked off a few of each others' incumbents, but in the end the numbers remain the same — the GOP with 48, the Democrats with 94. There are also five Progressives and three independents.

Two of those Democratic wins were by small margins — Sarah Buxton (D) defeated David Ainsworth (R) by two votes. A recount is likely. In Rutland City Gale Courcelle won by a single vote. Progressive Susan Hatch-Davis won her district by a handful of votes, which may also necessitate a recount.

This Democratic tidal wave analysis falls apart when you look at the big wins by Republicans Phil Scott and Tom Salmon; Scott for lieutenant governor and Salmon for auditor. Neither of their races were ever predicted to be close. Releasing the video of Salmon's DUI stop last year did more harm to his opponent, Doug Hoffer, than it did Salmon. If anything, it made Salmon more likeable and human.

Scott ran a humble campaign. He didn't make big promises or policy pronouncements, but offered voters a sense that he can be hands-on when necessary, but he wasn't going to use the office for anything more that its constitutional design.

Both Scott and Salmon, however, benefit from strong name recognition. Scott practically ran a general-election campaign during his primary against Mark Snelling, and Salmon is the son of a former governor — Thomas P. Salmon. The elder Salmon, like his son, remains popular among some Democrats and Republicans.

Another key factor was money. In the closing weeks of the campaign the Republican Governors Association and the Republican National Committee didn't provide auxiliary support for the party and the Dubie campaign. Instead, the Democratic Governors Association, Democratic National Committee, along with Shumlin allies like Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Action Fund, and the Shumlin campaign itself went on all-out ad and media mailing blitz.

Finally, you can't talk about Shumlin's win without giving kudos to his longtime aide and campaign manager Alex MacLean. Born and raised in Vermont, she proved herself as a perfect complement to Shumlin's own natural political instincts — which are among the best of any politician in Vermont.

The "angry mob of partisan bloggers" over at Green Mountain Daily rightly praised her abilities and skills. Get used to hearing her name, because she'll be a campaign manager in major demand in the years to come.

MacLean will serve on Shumlin's transition team, which will be co-chaired by former Gov. Howard Dean and Liz Bankowski, a former exec with Ben & Jerry's and chief of staff to Madeleine Kunin.

The challenges facing Shumlin are huge, especially given the bold progressive promises of universal pre-k, single-payer healthcare and closing down Vermont Yankee. Now he'll have to deliver.

The situation is similar to what Pres. Barack Obama faced after winning election in 2008. There are some high hopes in leftist circles, but as we saw in the recent midterm elections, voters can be fickle and fierce if they don't get their way. Or, if they don't like the reality when the compare it with campaign rhetoric.

Unlike Obama, however, Shumlin doesn't get a midterm election. In two years, he'll be on the ballot — not his party or his programs.

Pretty good assessment but I think you overvalued the incumbency part significantly. Jim Douglas was an unusual and special case, and it will be a long time before the VT GOP can find a statewide candidate matching his connectivity in Vermont. Rather than hurting his overall performance, I think Dubie's campaign did about as well as they could with the fear tactics. If Bliss had run a nice-guy campaign, Dubie would've finished with low 40s. I'm basing this on looking at the town results in Windsor and seeing more Dubie strength than you'd ordinarily expect, and attributing it to the fear-mongering TV ads. Bottom line, VT independents were freed of their obligation to support the guy they'd shook hands with several times in the last 40 years, and reverted to form, which is to split 60-40 in favor of the Dems. Except that Brian's negative campaign worked pretty well and got that to more like 55-45 in his favor, which isn't enough to get any GOP candidate elected statewide -- they need more like a 65-35 split in their favor. I twitted that he'd lose when Rasmussen came out with the independents in VT only slightly favoring Dubie.

Just a small point of correction, Shumlin has made it clear that single-payer health care is not a promise. He's pledged to work as hard as he can to get it done, but it will ultimately be up to our national delegation, along with Shumlin's efforts, to get a waiver.

Actually, Smarty Marty, when I told Shumlin I liked the single payer idea, his exact words to me were "we're gonna get it done!" Sounded like a promise, but whatever. I don't expect it to necessarily happen.

Of course he said he's going to get it done. That's how we won, getting enough people to believe that. He backpedaled very recently, and Marty is correct in that he's now saying it's "not a promise." That's code for "I have as much chance of getting it done as I do of building a bridge to the moon."

As a refresher of why that is, read Jeanne Keller's comment at

Coming soon: Shumlin's 2010 campaign slogan, "I can only get so much done in two years"

It's interesting to note that the backlash against those who voted for marriage equality last year never materialized. According to Vermont Freedom to Marry, 86 out of 89 House members who voted to override the Governor's veto were re-elected. In the Senate, 18 out of 19 members were re-elected. That's a 96% re-election rate. At least one of the four incumbents who was not re-elected ran against an opponent who spoke out in favor of marriage equality. The Governor-elect Peter Shumlin was a leader on marriage equality. Lt. Governor-elect Phil Scott also voted in favor of marriage equality. If marriage equality was a factor in the race, it looks like it had a positive effect on getting politicians elected. Hopefully politicians around the country will take notice and realize that they shouldn't be afraid of voting for marriage equality. Quite the opposite, it can be good for them politically.

Freedom to Marry was a no-brainer. I hope that wasn't what Shumlin considered one of the "tough things" that he "got done."

Nice Shay!

The biggest difference in Obama and Shumlin's situation with the left is: people ASSUMED Obama would do certain things when he actually never said he would -- Shumlin has made vast promises that are, to some, unrealistic if not impossible. Hoping for the best, but I feel the pendulum swinging from the left to the center under the weight of actually needing to deal with fiscal, legal and political realities.

I have to agree that "freedom to marry"was not exactly pushing a rock uphill in the Vermont political and social climate. I think it was a perfectly fine thing to do, but characterizing it as a landmark act of courage is laughable.

I also think it's blatantly obvious that it was an act by Shumlin specifically intended for later use in his gubernatorial campaign, and also question whether it was THE most important thing that needced to be done during last year's short and busy legislative session. What was that other thing that was going on at the time? Oh yeah, it's the Great Recession.

Anyone who says freedom to marry wasn't essentially a political career move by Shumlin: I got a bridge I'd like to sell ya.

I can't wait for the spin when Shummy comes out fully supporting Vermont Yankee when Entergy finds a new owner. There will be a lot of backroom deals to make sure we do not lose those jobs, and Shummy will use that to campaign on in two years. "I worked to bring in a company with a wonderful safety record so that we could keep these jobs in Vermont."

Vermont is way too liberal to do a complete turnaround in 2 years as just happened nationally, but 2 years of one party control will be very bad for Vermont. So much for checks and balances.

Nice to see you giving Shumlin and his team some credit after months and months of criticism in your 7days column. You were wrong, again. Looks like you'll have to go back to digging up dirt on Ed Flanagan and his brain injury troubles because you certainly are not interested in any kind of fair assessment of any politician or politics in Vermont.

If Freedom to Marry was so easy, why did the legislature have to vote to overcome Douglas's veto?

Calling a vote was hard?

The Ed Flanagan article was one of the most well written political pieces I have ever read in Vermont. He was no longer qualified to be in office. Kudos to the SevenDays for covering a story that no other media outlet would touch, but everyone in Montpelier knew was a problem. Hope Ed is enjoying his political retirement.

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