Analysis: Shumlin Needs Support Of Centrists, Environmentalists

Jan 9, 2015

Months of waiting are over. A joint assembly of Vermont's House and Senate made it official yesterday: Gov. Peter Shumlin gained a third two-year term with a vote total of 110 to 69 over Republican challenger Scott Milne.

An election where one candidate doesn't gain 50 percent of the vote in November is not that unusual, but this time around, what happened afterward was unusual. Typically, when no candidate has gotten 50 percent of the vote, the second place vote-getter has conceded and the legislative vote becomes largely a formality.

But this year, Scott Milne asked the legislature to vote for him and an outside group even ran television ads asking Vermonters to call their legislators and ask them to support Milne as well.

In November, Middlebury College political science professor emeritus Eric Davis predicted that Milne would not succeed in the legislative vote. "There are only 62 Republicans in the legislature, and you need 91, a majority of the votes in the House and Senate, to win. I don't see Milne picking up close to 30 votes from Democrats, Progressives and independents," Davis said at the time.

And so the 69 votes Milne received were right in line with Davis' expectations. He said Friday that likely almost all the Republicans, plus a few Democrats, Progressives or Independents whose districts favored Milne voted for him. Similarly, Davis thinks almost all the Democrats voted for Shumlin, and a few Republicans whose districts favored Shumlin may have voted for the governor. There's no way to be sure, however, as the vote happened by secret paper ballot.

A group of lawmakers selected to be tellers tallies votes cast by a joint session of the Legislature to determine Vermont's next governor on Thursday, Jan. 8. Gov. Peter Shumlin defeated Republican Scott Milne, 110-69.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

There have been a number of calls in recent weeks for Vermont to make a constitutional amendment to get rid of this legislative vote. Senator Bill Doyle will introduce a bill asking for the threshold to be lowered to 40 percent for a victory to be secured in the general election.

In a speech before the Thursday's vote, House Minority Leader Don Turner took to the floor to say those calls are premature. In the end, some may argue that the process worked because the candidate who got the most votes was named governor.

Passing a constitutional amendment is no easy task in Vermont, requiring votes by two separately elected Legislatures and approval by voters in a statewide referendum. "I think the big questions legislators have to think about when they look at proposed constitutional amendments is, at the end, should the legislature or the public decide who the governor is if no one clears that 50 percent threshold on Election Day?"

Gov. Shumlin made his inaugural address with the sound of protest chants ringing in the background, and Davis said he's in a weakened position going forward. "A core supporter group of his, the advocates of single-payer, and there are a lot more than just the people who protested vocally at the statehouse yesterday, since he announced his decision to withdraw the single-payer plan, Shumlin has not reached out to those people and acknowledged the intense political support they provided him back in his primary in 2010, and then in the 2010 and 2012 elections," Davis said, adding that the Progressives will likely run their own gubernatorial candidate in the 2016 election.

And the inaugural speech gave indications of where the governor will go next for support. "The governor is clearly going to try and obtain support from environmentalists in his next reelection race, the emphasis on the environment in yesterday's speech is an indicator of that. And he's also going to try to obtain support from centrists. One indicator of that will be what sort of budget he proposes and what happens if there are amendments on the House or Senate floor, or proposals coming of of committees to raise more revenue than the governor wants to close the state's budget gap," Davis said.
On the education finance front, Davis said, he'll be interested to hear if the governor comes out with his own proposal in the budget address or whether he waits for the legislature to come up with their own ideas, but either way, Davis said education finance and governance and the budget will be the major issues in this upcoming session.