By Jon Margolis, VTDigger.org
OK, Vermont. You’re still special.
At least for now, at least when it comes to politics.
“Attack ads don’t work here” is the oft-repeated Vermont boast. In other states, Vermonters like to say, candidates can get elected by tearing down their opponents. Not here, where folks demand civility of their politicians.
Bruce Lisman challenged that local legend. In the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary for governor, Lisman’s campaign unleashed a barrage of television commercials assailing Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. Not just Scott’s policies, either. Also his character. Scott’s co-ownership of a construction company that bids on state contracts, said one Lisman ad, is “a total conflict of interest.”
It didn’t work. It didn’t come close to working. Scott is the Republican candidate for governor. It’s not yet certain how much money (most of it his own) Lisman poured into his campaign. It is certain he bought himself little more than humiliation, losing by some 20 percentage points. He conceded not long after 10 p.m.
But don’t get too carried away with yourself, Vermont. You’re not all that different. Attack ads may not work, but television commercials apparently do. A slew of them in the final days before the primary explains state Sen. David Zuckerman’s apparent victory over House Speaker Shap Smith in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.
Zuckerman had other advantages, including the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders. And Smith split the mainstream center-left Democratic vote with Burlington Rep. Kesha Ram, leaving all the left-of-center-left voters for Zuckerman.
Still, the race was close, and that onslaught of Zuckerman commercials—not attack ads at all, just positive information about him—quite likely turned the tide.
Then there was just good old-fashioned politics, the kind that apparently determined the outcome of the Democratic race for governor, in which former Transportation Secretary Sue Minter beat Matt Dunne.
Minter might have ended up winning anyway, but it was a close race, and Dunne made some last-minute mistakes. Just a week before the primary, he altered his position on wind power projects, saying he would give towns effective veto power over the siting of major wind projects within their borders.
There was no mystery about what he was trying to do. He was trying to eat into the support of the third candidate in the race, former state Sen. Peter Galbraith, an opponent of all ridgeline wind power. But Dunne went about his policy switch clumsily. He looked as though he would say anything to get elected.
So would most candidates. But the good ones know how to do it less obviously.
So it will be Minter against Scott in November, and though Vermont remains a Democratic state expected to vote for Hillary Clinton in November, and to easily reelect Democrats Patrick Leahy to the Senate and Peter Welch to the House, Scott starts off as the early favorite.
As Scott proved Tuesday, he is a dominant political force in the state. Not quite to the extent that Leahy and Sanders are, but they’re more in tune with the policy preferences of most voters. Scott appeals to the electorate less through his policies than through his demeanor—precisely that civility that Vermont voters seem truly to value.
Besides, Minter was part of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration, and the incumbent governor is not popular. The Republicans will try to link her to Shumlin as much as possible, and she will have to figure out how to convince people that a Minter administration will not be just more of the same.
That might not be too hard. She’s feisty and energetic and is hardly a clone of Shumlin. Still, with the state apparently in a “time for a change” mood, she will have to make clear just how different from her former boss she will be.
Scott, though, however triumphant he was Tuesday, was not unscathed. He survived Lisman’s attacks but was not necessarily untouched by them. Some of Lisman’s accusations were simply wrong; Scott never endorsed a “mileage tax” in which motorists would be charged according to how many miles they drove.
But what Lisman said about Scott’s construction company was accurate, if presented in an unfairly negative manner. If that company’s bids on state projects are not the “total conflict of interest” that Lisman claimed, they do present potential conflicts of interest. Scott can end them by selling his share of the firm or by pledging that the company will not bid on state contracts while he is governor.
So far, he has refused to do either. He may have to reconsider those decisions between now and November. One reason Vermont is still special is that its voters like their elected officials to be civil, but also squeaky-clean.
By Jon Margolis, VTDigger.org