Margolis: Primary night predictably anti-climactic

The end of Vermont’s 2014 primary campaign rose (or did it sink?) to a level rarely reached in American politics: it would have been anti-climactic if only it had created any interest to begin with.

An anti-climax, says the dictionary, is “a disappointing end to an exciting or impressive series of events.”

As the vote-counting dragged on Tuesday night, the results could not really be called disappointing only because expectations were minimal from the start.

Whatever Vermont politics have displayed this year, it has not been “an exciting or impressive series of events.” The excitement has not been minimal; it has been non-existent. Few races have been truly competitive during the primary campaign, few are expected to be competitive in November, and the candidates have failed to impress, at least beyond their inner circles of friends and family.

In that sense, primary night was less disappointing than fitting. "Nothing will come of nothing," King Lear said to his favorite (until that moment) daughter. It would be unfair to say that Vermont’s political debate this year has amounted to nothing. It’s just that it has amounted to very little, and on primary day very little came of very little.

Fortunately for Vermont, the impending general election campaign is not likely to end in the murder, treachery, and mayhem that followed Lear’s succinct remark. But neither did the primary campaign and its conclusion portend an uplifting, substantive, discussion of the issues.

There was, to begin with, the turnout. It, too, was not quite nothing.

Dean Corren, a Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

Dean Corren, a Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

But close. Extrapolating a bit from the numbers when 60 percent of the votes had been counted, it seemed likely that just over 30,000 voters bothered to make it to the polls. That’s less than 10 percent of the roughly 400,000 registered voters and 6 percent of the state’s 500,000-strong eligible voting age population.

Statewide, the only real question surrounding Tuesday’s voting was whether Dean Corren, the Progressive Party candidate for lieutenant governor, would get enough Democratic write-in votes to get on that party’s line on the November ballot also.

The votes have been cast, and the answer is … we don’t know.

Last night, the Secretary of State's office reported 5 percent of the overall ballots cast in the lieutenant governor's race were write-in votes on Democratic ballots. In all, more than 5,000 as of last night.

For whom?

They’ll tell us later this week, or maybe next week.

There’s little doubt that Corren got at least the 250 write-in votes needed to qualify for the Democratic line, otherwise vacant because no Democrat filed to run for lieutenant governor. (Corren, however, had only 249 votes on the Progressive primary ticket as of Tuesday night.)

The uncertainty about the write-in tally for Corren remains because he had an opponent of sorts, as some prominent Democrats were supporting the incumbent Republican lieutenant governor, Phil Scott, the only Republican who holds statewide office.

A handful of semi-prominent Republicans were urging Republicans to take a Democratic ballot just to write in Scott’s name (in this state, a voter gets the ballots for all four “major” parties, votes on only one of them, puts that one in the scanner to be tallied, and dumps the other three in a black box; are they then recycled?).

Scott brought in 13,839 Republican votes for the lieutenant governor seat, not far behind Gov. Peter Shumlin who easily won the Democratic primary for governor with 14,499 votes.

Pity the poor Republican voters. Should they have opted to improve Scott’s chances at re-election? Or stuck with their habitual party of choice, where three Republicans were on the ballot for the top spot – the governor’s race – and yet another was seeking write-in votes for the dubious privilege of opposing incumbent Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.

That write-in contender already is on the ballot as the gubernatorial candidate of another party, the Libertarians. Unlike the Progressive and Liberty Unions parties, the Libertarian Party does not have “major party” status, though whether those parties really (as opposed to legally) should be considered “major” is an interesting question.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Still, the Libertarian candidate, Dan Feliciano, decided two weeks ago that he would seek GOP votes as a write-in candidate despite the objections of both the Republican party chairman and his own Libertarian Party chairman, and a handful of conservative activists supported him.

A week is not much time to organize such an effort (Corren’s campaign to get the Democratic line has been in operation much longer) and a Republican voter’s default position (as the computer nerds would call it) would be to mark up the GOP ballot if there is any Republican contest at all. So Feliciano was facing a daunting challenge. Weak as it is, the Vermont Republican Party has an organization, improved under chairman David Sunderland and capable of bringing out voters to support the party establishment choice, Scott Milne.

And so it did. No need to wait for the late returns. From the first tallies, Milne was getting some 70 percent of the vote. Write-ins, most of them presumably for Feliciano, were in second place, but far, far, behind at 16 percent, Milne is the Republican nominee.

With 60 percent of the votes counted, some 3,200 Democrats, roughly one out of every three who voted for governor, had cast a write-in vote for lieutenant governor. The Secretary of State’s office knows that and puts it on its election website because those voters wrote in the name of their preferred candidate and also filled in the little circle next to it. The scanners count the filled-in circles, and – presto! – the world knows how many write-in votes have been cast.

But the scanners do not read the names. Human beings do that, but not yet. The reading and counting begins Wednesday morning, and the results will be known … later.

Conventional political wisdom suggests that many more of these write-ins are for Corren than for Scott. Democrats rarely vote for Republicans in Democratic primaries. Scott’s Democratic backers, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell and Sens. Dick Mazza and Dick Sears are held in high regard in the Senate and in their districts. But they have little influence outside their own bailiwicks.

A Corren victory would put him on two lines for the November ballot, and at least raise the possibility that the popular Scott could be beaten. Corren has been endorsed by Shumlin, who is likely to coast to victory, and in this state the Democratic Party is far and away the most powerful political force.

None of this makes Corren the favorite. It would make the lieutenant governor’s race competitive.

In which case, election night in November might rise to the level of anti-climactic.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964." Margolis left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. He was previously the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday and has also been a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the U.S. Army.

Email: [email protected]

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