Underdogs everywhere have probably taken heart from the upset victory by David Brat over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Virginia Republican primary last week.
Even so, Scott Milne, a Republican businessman who has decided to challenge Gov. Peter Shumlin this fall, has acknowledged he faces tall odds, even in a season of electoral turbulence.
For one thing, Vermont is not in the grip of turbulence like that seething among Republicans in other parts of the country. Here the Democratic Party is in command of an agenda that appears to have firm public backing, notably the push for health care reform, which is Shumlin’s signature issue. Thus, Republicans under the leadership of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and party Chairman David Sunderland have decided to focus on legislative races with the purpose of building up the ranks among Republican elected officials and bringing clarity to the party’s positions on the issues.
Toward that end Milne, as the presumed Republican candidate, would probably serve himself and his party best by consulting with Scott and Sunderland about honing a message while working with Republican legislative candidates. His first job will be to introduce himself to Vermont voters, and in doing so he could help the party articulate its approach to issues on which the Democrats have the initiative.
Republicans in the Legislature have not engaged in the sort of futile ideological exercise that Republicans in the U.S. House have done, voting over and over and over to repeal Obamacare. Instead, Vermont Republicans, and that includes Milne, are in a position to bring useful questions and oversight to the debate about Shumlincare — the single-payer system that will be before the Legislature during the next two years.
The other major piece of political news last week came when House Speaker Shap Smith announced he would seek another term in the House. He had considered the possibility of bringing his career in the House to a close but decided instead that, with health care and other issues at a critical phase, it was too soon to bow out. Shumlin reportedly wanted him to continue in the House, and it’s easy to see why.
On health care Smith’s leadership could play a crucial role in guiding the debate and steering legislation. On other issues, Smith needs to be careful to prevent perceived political imperatives from sending him on a fool’s errand. That is what happened during the past year when he thought he needed to protect his party from criticism about rising property taxes. Toward that end he gave his backing to misguided education reforms that would have imposed historic top-down changes on the education system. Smith didn’t think this strategy through, or if he did he was playing a dangerous political game.
In the coming years he ought to recognize from the start that Vermont’s communities will not submit to dictates from Montpelier and that the education establishment needs to learn to work with them. If useful legislation is to emerge from the House on education reform, it needs to be based on this premise.
Shumlin, meanwhile, is riding high. No incumbent governor has been turned out of office since 1962, which bodes well for Shumlin. He is no Eric Cantor, even if his popularity ratings have slipped. He is running for his third term, a time when governors have been around long enough that the luster has begun to fade and people have acquired reasons not to like him. He has not committed any major political gaffes, and if voters are becoming weary of him, it is probably owing to judgments about his personality.
He has always been viewed as a crafty pol, a not inaccurate characterization reinforced by a questionable private land deal he made last summer with a neighbor in East Montpelier. That story caught on for a time because it seemed to confirm doubts some people had about the governor’s trustworthiness.
But Shumlin plays the political game well, and he is pursuing a historic agenda to establish the first comprehensive single-payer health care system in the nation. To achieve that goal he has to maintain the voters’ trust so that legislators are willing to stick with him. He has the capacity to rise to the occasion in historic times, as he did in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.
Scott Milne now takes up the role of loyal opposition, which is crucial in ensuring against complacency and arrogance on the part of officeholders. He will do the voters a service by formulating the crucial questions testing whether the Shumlin agenda is worthy of the support of the voters. And then the voters will decide.
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