The lack of seriously contested races in the primary elections taking place today raises two questions. First, at a time when disgust with the conduct of politics is pervasive, how is it that Vermonters are so satisfied, or at least complacent, concerning the officeholders who represent them? Second, with a firm grip on office by the state’s incumbents, what does it mean to be the establishment candidate?
The leading incumbents today appear to be firmly established in their positions; not only are they without serious challenge from their own parties, but the opposition parties have failed to field candidates who are likely to threaten them.
Republicans have three candidates for governor. Scott Milne is viewed as the establishment candidate because he has won the support of party officials and luminaries such as former Gov. James Douglas. Milne is a businessman with ties to the business community. But he is also a political newcomer who entered the race at the last minute when no more experienced Republicans had stepped forward to challenge Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin. He is likely to have less than a quarter of the money of the well-heeled Shumlin.
Milne is running in the Republican primary today against Emily Peyton, of Putney, and Steve Berry, of Wolcott. They are little-known figures who are running to make a point. Inclusion in the several gubernatorial debates allows them to make their points, but they do not speak the language of establishment politicians, which is part of their point. Peyton has run for statewide office before, and she is attuned to what she sees as corporate abuse of the planet, and she argues for greater sensitivity to the needs of humanity.
Shumlin himself faces a primary challenge from a candidate trying to make a point. H. Brooke Paige has referred to Shumlin’s tenure as a “reckless authoritarian reign,” and he is running because he doesn’t think Shumlin should go unchallenged. But these running-to-make-a-point candidates underscore what it means to be an establishment politician and highlight the reason most voters, even in a time of alienation from politics, vote for established leaders.
That’s because the parties are not mere vehicles for vote-getting. They are wide-ranging alliances among diverse groups within the state. When an establishment figure such as Peter Shumlin forms ties with business, environmental or labor groups or health care advocates, he is building alliances and establishing trust. He is showing that he can work with diverse people and interests. He does not just represent a point of view. He represents an alliance, held together by trust, with the potential for getting things done.
Paige, Shumlin’s primary opponent, is playing up his role as a quirky figure. He ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 2012. Now he is running as a Democrat for governor and attorney general. He favors colorful language — he called Shumlin’s health care proposal a “steamy pile of crud.” But he is an alliance of one, running to hear himself speak, not to establish the broad working alliances that make politics work.
The one serious race this year involves Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who faces a challenge from former state Sen. Dean Corren, who is running as a Progressive and has qualified for $200,000 of state funding. Corren has mounted a write-in campaign to get on the ballot as a Democrat. Because of their success at the ballot box, Progressives are an established third party, and Corren will provide a genuine liberal alternative to Scott. Scott, meanwhile, is the kind of moderate Republican whom moderate Democrats like to support. He has had the fundraising assistance of Democratic Sen. Richard Mazza.
Meanwhile, three little-known Republicans are running for the chance to oppose Rep. Peter Welch, who has established himself as a respected, well-liked, hardworking congressman. Americans’ rating of Congress is at a record low, but Vermonters appear to be pleased with Welch. He has established a relationship of trust with the people of Vermont that will be hard for anyone to shake.
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