Politics

Would any Democrat run against Gov. Phil Scott?

Gov. Phil Scott has not yet said whether he’ll seek a fourth term in office. In fact, not a single high-profile Republican or Democrat has announced their intentions in the governor's race. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

This election season is Vermont’s busiest in over a decade. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the governor’s race, for which not a single high-profile Republican or Democrat has announced their intentions.

Gov. Phil Scott has not yet said whether he’ll seek a fourth term in office. His press secretary, Jason Maulucci, wrote on Monday that Scott planned to “arrive at a decision by the end of the legislative session,” which could conclude in weeks. But nearly everyone — including Democrats — appears to think the Republican’s victory in November is a foregone conclusion if he decides to make a run for it. And they’re assuming he will.

Plenty of people have been prodded by the party to consider a run, according to Vermont Democratic Party executive committee member Tim Jerman. But so far, no one’s biting. And with just one month remaining before the deadline to file as a major party candidate, the clock is ticking.

“They think Phil’s going to run, and they don’t think he’s beatable,” he said. 

Vermonters usually give their incumbents plenty of deference at the ballot box. No incumbent governor has lost reelection since 1962. But Scott is also perceived as having an unshakeable lock on the state’s moderate lane.

“He knows where the center of Vermont is. And he stays within that band,” said Jerman. And, indeed, despite the “R” next to Scott’s name on the ballot, poll after poll shows that it is independents and Democrats — not Republicans — who form his most enduring base of support.

Former House Speaker Shap Smith was one such Democratic politico asked by party elders to throw his hat in the ring. He demurred. His daughter is about to enter her senior year in high school, the Morrisville Democrat said, and he just became managing partner at his law firm.

“It just so happened that I didn't want to be a sacrificial lamb, either,” he said.

Smith said he doesn’t think Scott is categorically invincible at the ballot box. But he thinks the stars would have to align for a Democrat to beat him in November.

“I think the economy would have to go into the tank. I think that he'd have to make some major missteps,” Smith said. “And I think you'd have to be a candidate that had hit on an issue that really excited Vermonters — and I just don't see the path where that confluence of events is going to happen.”

Former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine has also been encouraged by people in the Democratic party to make a run for it. But he said Monday he still hasn’t decided whether he’ll do it. People would like him to run, Racine said, but they also don’t yet appear ready to summon the time, money, and volunteer hours needed to mount a serious campaign. And many, he said, have told him they “want to keep their options open,” in case Scott decides not to run again, and other Democrats do jump in.

Racine argues that Scott is vulnerable. Despite the governor’s emphasis on affordability, inflation and sky-high housing prices are squeezing everyday Vermonters. Racine, who served under Gov. Peter Shumlin as secretary of the Agency of Human Services, added that the state’s mental health system is “in crisis” and its health reform initiatives are “broken.”  

“The issue for me is: will the support be there to get the message out there?” Racine said. “It takes a campaign staff, it takes a strong campaign and, quite frankly, that takes some money. And if the resources aren't there and the volunteers aren't there, it's hard to get the message out.”

Sue Minter, who won a three-way Democratic primary in 2016 but lost to Scott in the general election, said she, too, had been asked to consider another run. Minter said she was “completely captured” by her work leading Capstone Community Action, an anti-poverty nonprofit, and was not planning a run for political office.

“It’s really just not on my mind,” she said. “But I would think, certainly, if Gov. Scott is running again, that it will be a difficult race to win for anybody.”

Attorney General TJ Donovan, also a Democrat, is widely believed to have his sights on the governor’s office. And in a recent University of New Hampshire poll, he topped the field of potential Democratic candidates.

But asked about his plans, Donovan was mum. 

“I'm gonna make my plans known here in the news in the near future — but nothing to announce today,” he said. Donovan declined to say whether he’d consider challenging Scott if the governor ran for reelection.

The only person who appears poised to challenge Scott is Brenda Siegel, an anti-poverty activist who has run unsuccessfully in Democratic primaries for governor (in 2018) and lieutenant governor (in 2020). She declined to confirm Tuesday whether she intends to run but said she was planning to make an announcement “in the next few days.” 

Siegel acknowledged there appeared to be a dearth of Democrats willing to challenge the governor. But she said someone should.

“It’s a big fight for whoever chooses to do it,” she said. “But there are plenty of ways in which this governor has fought over the last six years in ways that have harmed working people and people across the state who are low- and moderate-income and marginalized. And it is really important to hold our elected leaders accountable.”

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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