Op - Ed
April 12, 2018

Margolis: Scott likely to win big in November

By Jon Margolis, VTDigger

OK, enough for a while of all this chit-chat over minimum wages, family leave, getting the goop out of the lake, and guns (especially, mercifully, guns). Let’s turn to one of the eternal verities: politics.

Not that they aren’t all connected. The wages, the lake goop, the guns (especially, heaven help us, the guns) are all political, as they should be.

But while the chit-chat continues, time, which (as has been noted) waits for no one, has marched on, as is its wont. It is now April, which is not that far from November, the sixth of which is Election Day.

On that day, it has been widely assumed, Republican Gov. Phil Scott will be re-elected. Or at least it was widely assumed until he came out in support of doing something about the aforementioned guns, enraging some voters. Most of those voters supported him in 2016, meaning he alienated part of his political “base” (and haven’t you heard that term far too often of late?) perhaps risking his re-election.

Except that a re-election can’t be at too much risk absent a viable opposing candidate, and to understand the opposition’s viability or lack thereof, just consider that the optimistic view among Vermont Democrats is that their candidate might get 40 percent of the vote.

This is optimism? Losing to Scott by a wide margin in 2016, Democrat Sue Minter got 44 percent. But there are Democrats who think that even a 40 percent showing by either of their two candidates – environmental activist James Ehlers and former utility executive Christine Hallquist – would avoid disaster.

Disaster would mean losing a whole lot of seats in the Legislature and/or encouraging the pesky Progressive Party to become even peskier, which would include challenging Democrats in more legislative races.

Right now, the Democrats have dominant majorities in both houses, 21 of the 30 senators (and two Progressives who usually vote with them), 83 of 150 House members (plus seven Progressives). Might their majorities decline if their candidate for governor loses badly?

The operating rule of thumb for predicting election results is analogous to the rule about the three things that matter in real estate: location, location, and location. In off-year elections, the three things that matter are turnout, turnout, and turnout. If polls show that the Democratic candidate for governor doesn’t have a chance, will thousands of Democratic-leaning voters stay home?

Maybe. They’re not going to worry about their federal office-holders. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch are in no danger of losing. So not schlepping to the polls might make sense for these voters.

Unless they are so driven to express their antagonism toward President Donald Trump by running up the Sanders and Welch totals that the schlepping seems worth it.

And then what about the disgruntled Republicans? Remember, those voters who are enraged about the gun bills and even more enraged at Scott’s support for them (because not that long ago he was on their side) are Republicans. If they decide they aren’t going to vote for Scott they may stay home.

So, yes, the key is turnout, turnout, and turnout. But it’s impossible to predict who will and who will not turn out. That’s why politics is fun.

Now let’s complicate matters a bit more. Some Statehouse political types were wondering the other day about the possibility that the pro-Trump Republicans – who roughly correlate with the pro-gun Republicans – don’t simply stay home, but actually vote against Scott. Not just for Springfield businessman Keith Stern in the Republican primary, but for a pro-Trump, anti-gun control independent in the general election.

So far, no one has suggested who this anti-Scott challenger might be. But there is political space to the governor’s right. Even before the gun issue re-emerged, a small but vocal faction of Vermont Republicans were unhappy about Scott. These are the Republicans who are pro-Trump and resent Scott’s regular disagreement with the president’s policies. They include the vice chair of the Republican state committee, Brady Toensing. So the governor’s own party is not united behind him. If a lot of those Republicans vote for a pro-gun independent, might the governor be beaten, even by Ehlers or Hallquist?

Anything is possible. Fervent opponents of gun laws are vocal, and they have some political clout because so many of them care about no other issue; they pick the candidate who agrees with them on guns.

But they are a minority, and not a very large minority. Something like 75 percent of Vermont voters favor these gun safety bills passed by the Legislature. At least that many also care about other issues, and even more than issues they care about the quality of their candidates.

A pro-gun, anti-Scott independent candidate will claim that the governor, who not that long ago repeated that no new gun laws were needed in this very safe state, broke faith with some of his supporters.

Well, he did change his mind. By all the evidence at hand, he did it by himself. He didn’t study the polls or order up a focus group. He didn’t get the idea from his political advisers, who appeared to be as surprised as anyone. Scott changed his mind because he was “jolted,” as he put it, after reading the police affidavit about Jack Sawyer, the young man charged with planning to kill students at Fair Haven Union High School.

“I’ve evolved on this,” Scott said. “Where I was a week or two ago has changed completely.”

Whether this evolution was wise can be debated. That it was genuine seems obvious. The governor looked at what had happened, understood that protecting Vermont’s children was his job, and doing it was worth defying not only some of his supporters but his own previous position. It was, in short, authentic.

Voters like authentic. Political prediction is never safe, but don’t be surprised if Phil Scott wins big Nov. 6, not despite “evolving” on guns, but because of it.

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