Incumbents Thrive on Quiet Elections

By Tom Brown

Whether it’s the lack of compelling races on the statewide ballot or Trump burnout, this year’s midterm election in Vermont seems to lack the energy one might expect, given the tumultuous national political atmosphere.

That doesn’t mean turnout will be low, especially in Montpelier,  where two major bond issues and two proposed charter changes have sparked plenty of debate, but overall interest in candidates and campaigns appear down despite the persistent stream of divisiveness from Washington over immigration, the Kavanaugh confirmation, attacks on the media, and more.

“It’s the quietest campaign I can recall,” four-term Washington County Sen. Anthony Pollina said. “There’s not a lot  of excitement. When you do talk to people about politics, they want to talk about the national scene, or they don’t want to talk about politics at all. It’s one or the other.”

Driving around central Vermont there appear to be fewer yard signs than usual, a lack of public candidate forums, and less political advertising on radio and TV, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s clear that at the local level incumbents are the beneficiaries of an electorate that might be distracted, and perhaps turned off, by the vitriol that permeates the national political debate.

According to FollowTheMoney.org, Vermont incumbents won 88 percent of their state legislative races in the 2016 election. That’s actually the lowest rate in New England and below the national average of 92 percent, but it could be a powerful deterrent to would-be candidates. The percentage of incumbents keeping their jobs is greater for statewide office holders, such as governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and so on.

Pollina said quiet campaigns favor the incumbent and are not good for democracy.

“As an incumbent, it’s interesting, because the quieter it is the better it is for incumbents, because people have a hard time getting to know your opponent,” he said. “It’s incumbent on the challenger to challenge the incumbent.”

That’s evident in his own race, in which seven candidates are vying for three senate seats. Pollina said there has been only one candidate forum thus far, and it was not well attended. Vermont prides itself on the accessible retail nature of its politics. It remains one of the few places where if you want to meet a candidate and tell him or her face-to-face what’s on your mind, you can.

Part of the slow campaign season, Pollina said, is the lack of well-known Republicans running for statewide office. Republicans barely participated in the primary races for statewide offices, with perennial candidate H. Brooke Paige claiming wins in the races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, Secretary of State, Auditor of Accounts, Treasurer, and Attorney General (and was unopposed in the last four). The party has since appointed candidates to run for those offices in the general election, but none has experience on the statewide level and only one, outgoing state Rep. Janssen Willhoit, running for Attorney General, has served in Montpelier.

Likewise, Democrats have not sufficiently challenged incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott, Pollina said. Democratic nominee Christine Hallquist, a former utility CEO in her first political race, has not been effective in pushing Scott on the issues, he said.

“The Democrats should be raising the issue of income inequality every day and challenging him that you can’t just cut taxes. You have to be willing to make investments and revitalize the economy,” Pollina said. “Phil runs a low-key campaign and that plays into his whole strategy.”

One race in which Republicans have fielded a strong candidate is that for lieutenant governor, where Rep. Don Turner, House minority leader, is challenging Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat.

Pollina said if more elected Republicans such as Turner would compete for statewide office, it would raise the party’s profile and build its bench, even if those candidates should lose. “If you lose, you lose,” he said. “Only one gets to win. It doesn’t mean you’re not as smart or not as good, it just means you didn’t get as many votes.”

And more compelling races at the top of the ticket builds more excitement and interest in down-ballot contests, he said.

“Without the energy at the top it’s hard to create energy at the lower level,” Pollina said. “Because of what is going on at the national level, there’s burnout and a lot of fear. It’s a time when voters may feel perfectly comfortable with the people in office. As it is we have a kind of stability here that other parts of the country don’t have.”

In addition to the state senate race, incumbents are looking to hang onto their part-time jobs in nine  Washington County House races. Only the Washington-1 district, which includes Northfield and Berlin, has an open seat (see story on page 10). Three of the other eight races are uncontested. Here’s a look:

Washington-4 (Montpelier): Democratic Rep. Warren F. Kitzmiller is seeking his ninth elected term after being appointed in 2001 to fill the seat held by his late wife, Karen Kitzmiller. Democrat Mary Hooper, who sits on the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, is seeking her sixth term. They are being challenged by Norwich University adjunct professor Glennie Sewell, a Progressive.

Washington-2 (Barre Town): Democrat J. Guy Isabelle looks to unseat incumbent Rep. Rob LaClair, a Republican, or Rep. Francis “Topper” McFaun, a Republican/Democrat.

Washington-3 (Barre City): Incumbents Paul N. Poirier, an independent, and Tommy Walz, a Democrat, face off against Democrat Peter Anthony and Republican John Steinman in the two-seat district.

Washington-5 (East Montpelier, Middlesex): Incumbent Democrat Kimberly Jessup is unopposed.

Washington-6 (Calais, Marshfield, Plainfield): Incumbent Democrat Janet Ancel is unopposed.

Washington-7 (Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield, Warren): Incumbent Democrat Maxine Grad and independent Ed Read are seeking re-election against challengers Kari Dolan, a Democrat; Bob Readie, an independent; and Neil Johnson of the Green Mountain Party.

Washington-Chittenden (Bolton, Buels Gore, Huntington, Waterbury): Incumbent Reps. Tom Stevens and Theresa Wood are unopposed.

Lamoille-Washington (Elmore, Morristown, Woodbury, Worcester): Reps. Gary Nolan, a Republican, and David Yacovone, a Democrat, are challenged by Democrat Avram Patt.

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