Incumbents prevail: Vermonters stick with Sanders, Welch; Scott the lone statewide GOP winner

By SHELBURNE NEWS STAFF

Mount Mansfield didn’t crumble, the law of gravity was not repealed, and there were no upsets in the race for Vermont’s major offices on Tuesday. Every incumbent won.

Gov. Phil Scott was the lone Republican re-elected at the top of the ticket, easily outdistancing Democrat Christine Hallquist, vying to become the first transgender candidate elected governor.

Scott pledged to continue his efforts to make Vermont more affordable. However, he could run into problems because Democrats won a veto-proof majority in the Legislature on Tuesday.

In the last legislative session, Scott vetoed 11 bills, including two budget proposals. With only 83 members — and two-thirds of the 150-member House needed to override a veto — Democrats struggled to even come close to challenging the governor’s veto pen.

Vermonters elected 10 additional Democratic representatives, raising the total number of blue seats in the House to 93. Assuming the seven Progressive House members voted alongside them, the Democrats, would have the numbers to negate Scott’s vetoes.

Scott complimented Hallquist for running a civil, issue-oriented and historic campaign.

While party officials talked about the difficulty of being a Republican in blue-state Vermont, where President Donald Trump was trounced in 2016, Scott said he’d been able to go against that tide.

“I think Vermonters know me, I’ve been around for a while” in car racing and politics, he said. “We tend to support those we trust.”

Hallquist got about 40 percent of the vote, Scott 55 percent.

“I’m very proud of the campaign that we have run,” Hallquist said. “Phil is going to be very committed to the future of Vermont.”

“We show the rest of the country what good democracy looks like,” she said.

A former utility CEO, Hallquist, 62, was the country’s first openly transgender candidate from a major party. Until her run for governor, she spent 12 years as the head of the Vermont Electric Co-op and transitioned in 2015. She won the Democratic primary in August against three other candidates.

Before being elected governor, Scott served three terms as lieutenant governor and five terms in the Vermont Senate. Scott, 60, previously owned a construction business, Dubois Construction, which he sold after taking office.

Scott outraised Hallquist in the 2018 race, pulling in $670,000 to Hallquist’s more than $500,000. The spending paled in comparison to the 2016 race, when the seat was open. Candidates and outside groups spent more than $13 million last election cycle.

Scott campaigned this year to continue his efforts to make Vermont more affordable and fight new taxes and fees. He has been an outspoken critic of the amount of school spending in Vermont and wants to shift some K-12 spending to early education and higher education. He has opposed many policies of President Donald Trump and signed several controversial gun control measures into law earlier this year.

Hallquist highlighted the need for broadband service in rural communities to spur economic growth and supported a $15-an-hour minimum wage and paid family leave, measures Scott vetoed during his first term.

Some Democrats at the polls on Tuesday said they were supporting Scott over Hallquist, praising the governor in particular for his decision to sign legislation to restrict the state’s gun laws.

Scott signed the gun bills in April, after facing widespread opposition from his party and second amendment rights advocates. He entered office in 2016 as a fierce opponent of gun control, but pivoted after law enforcement reported thwarting plans for school shooting in Fair Haven last February.

“I vote mostly Democratic, but I kind of like what Phil Scott has been doing,” said Corey Williams, a voter in St. Albans said. In 2016, Williams voted for Scott’s Democratic challenger, Sue Minter. He cast a ballot for Scott this year, in large part because of the governor’s decision to “[stand] up” on gun control, he said.

Other Democrats voted for Hallquist, attracted to her progressive policy proposals.

“I like what Scott’s done, but I identify more with [Christine’s] values,” Asia Roque of St. Albans said. Hallquist’s proposal to institute a Medicare-for-all health care program convinced her to vote for the Democrat, she said.

Cindy Felisko, a Democrat, said she voted blue in every race with the exception of the gubernatorial contest where she picked Scott. “I just kind of feel like he’s done his job and that he’s doing OK,” she said. “If somebody hasn’t really screwed up, then why get rid of them.”

Top of the ticket

Turnout was reported strong throughout the day and according to the secretary of state, the nearly 69,000 ballots cast early were more than double the 2014 early vote of 33,400 ballots. Voter turnout across the state was at nearly 57 percent Tuesday.

At the top of the ticket, Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch handily won their congressional races. In fact the minute Vermont’s polls closed with no districts reporting, CNN called the Senate race for Sanders in his campaign for a third six-year term.

• U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent who came close to being the Democratic presidential nominee two years ago, easily beat Republican Lawrence Zupan and a handful of minor candidates, winning 66 percent of the vote over Zupan’s 27 percent.

“We have a president of the United States who is a pathological liar and is doing something no president in my lifetime has done,” Sanders told a cheering Democratic gathering in Burlington. “Instead of bringing the American people together, he is trying to divide us up based on the color of our skin and based on where we come from. …

“Our job is to tell our president we will not tolerate policies that are racist, sexist and homophobic,” he said. “The people, led by state of Vermont, are going to stand up and fight back.”

After coming close to the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, Sanders is considering another run in 2020. Since that campaign, he has maintained a national following for his progressive views on a host of economic issues, including a Medicare-for-all plan. He has long railed against a self-interested oligarchy of “millionaires and billionaires” who he says have subverted democracy. A long-dominant force in Vermont politics, Sanders has held the junior Senate seat since 2006 and previously served in the U.S. House, starting in 1990.

• Democrat Peter Welch, Vermont’s only congressman since 2007, won another two-year term Tuesday. He had even less competition than Sanders with the next-closest challenger Republican Anya Tynio with just over 25 percent of the vote; Laura Potters of the Liberty Union Party, and perennial candidate Cris Ericson, an independent. Welch took 68 percent of the vote.

Welch called for people to unite across the country.

“We are in it together and this is what this election is about,” Welch said. He’s optimistic that, since Democrats won control of the U.S. House on Tuesday, there will be far more balance in U.S. policies.

In other state-level offices, the incumbents, all Democrats, all won easily.

• Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman of Hinesburg easily beat Republican Don Turner for lieutenant governor with 57 percent of votes ahead of Turner’s 39 percent.

Though Turner, the outgoing House minority leader, is a popular Republican, Zuckerman, a progressive Democrat, was widely viewed as the favorite in the race. Zuckerman said he had thought that the results in his election would be closer. “Between my opponent’s fundraising as well as out of state money that was coming in, my campaign was outspent three to one,” Zuckerman said.

In his first term, the former state senator and representative has used the lieutenant governor’s office as a bully pulpit to champion Democratic priorities including a $15 minimum wage and a statewide paid family leave program — proposals which Scott vetoed during the last legislative session. A shifting balance of power in the House could mean more Democratic influence over issues Scott otherwise might reject.

“I look forward to frankly more discussion between the Legislature and the governor to move those proposals forward,”  Zuckerman said.

Subdued but upbeat, Turner Tuesday night accepted his loss and said he was surprised by the margin of his defeat. He said he expected to benefit from Gov. Scott’s popularity. “We thought that might be enough to pull us over,” Turner said.

Zuckerman served in the Vermont Legislature for 18 years before he was elected to the lieutenant governor’s office in 2016. He made a name for himself as a lawmaker by championing progressive proposals in the House and Senate including cannabis reform, and regulations requiring food manufacturers to use GMO labels.

Turner, the former minority leader who has been a legislator since 2006, said he looked forward to returning to his job as Milton town manager but remained open to serving again. “I’m not going away. I love Vermont. I feel that I can contribute in the future,” he said.

Other statewide seats

The Democratic incumbents in Vermont’s lower-tier statewide races coasted easily to wins on Tuesday. Vermont voters in large numbers re-elected their treasurer, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor.

The closest those races was for auditor. Incumbent Doug Hoffer took 62 percent of the vote in unofficial returns as of Wednesday morning, with 34 percent going to his leading opponent Richard Kenyon.

Treasurer Beth Pearce won 68 percent of the vote; her opponent, Richard Morton, claimed 32 percent.

Secretary of State Jim Condos got 67 percent of the vote to leading opponent H. Brooke Paige’s 29 percent; and Attorney General TJ Donovan won 70 percent over his leading opponent, Republican St. Johnsbury state Rep. Janssen Willhoit’s 26 percent.

Of all those who contested the incumbents, only Paige actually campaigned, and then only minimally, said Ellen Andersen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Vermont. She noted that Morton, Willhoit and Kenyon — chosen by the Republican State Committee in August to go up against the Democratic incumbents — didn’t seem to try hard to reach voters.

Condos said he didn’t use signs, even though he had plenty of them, because his opponent had said he didn’t believe in using them. He added that the run shows Vermonters want statewide officials who focus on their work, not politics.

“For the most part we all run our offices in a non-partisan fashion,” he said. “We are doing what is right for Vermont, not what is right for a party.”

This data is from Wednesday morning with 274 of 275 districts reporting. VTDigger also contributed to this report.

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