In the world of statewide politics, multi-candidate gubernatorial primaries are a rare and interesting beast. The mid-summer election isn't conducive to large turnouts. And with several candidates vying for such a small pool of support, it doesn't take a whole lot of votes to win a major-party nomination.
"Look, Peter Shumlin got elected by a couple hundred votes," says James Haslam, referring to the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary. "There was a difference of a few hundred votes separating four candidates for governor."
Peter Shumlin needed only 18,276 votes to win that five-way race — the second place finisher, Doug Racine, lost by fewer than 200 votes. And Shumlin went on to win his general election race against Republican Brian Dubie.
Haslam, director of the newly launched group called Rights and Democracy, says the looming primary represents a unique opportunity to influence an election that could define the statewide policy agenda for years to come.
"People coming together to create change together can have a tremendous impact on who the next governor is going to be," Haslam says.
Haslam most recently served as head of the Vermont Workers Center, a group that focused the lion's share of its advocacy work on the legislative process. Rights and Democracy will work in the legislative arena as well, and as a 501(c)4 issue-advocacy group, electioneering can't be the main focus of Haslam's new operation.
But Rights and Democracy is permitted to promote specific candidates. And Haslam says he intends to use the group to improve the gubernatorial prospects a candidate who demonstrates a commitment to things like increasing the minimum wage, improving worker benefits and fighting climate change.
"This last election, lots of people didn't come out to vote because they didn't think it mattered. So one big step is to make it matter," Haslam says.
Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, followed the 2010 primary closely. Only about 70,000 voters turned out for that election, and he expects about that many to come out in 2016. If multiple candidates are vying for the nomination, then Davis says 30,000 or so votes could be enough to win.
He says that gives potentially outsized pull to groups like Rights and Democracy.
"And in a low-turnout primary, a group that can mobilize and turn out even as few as 1,000 voters can make difference at the margin … and I think that's the situation we're looking at at the Democratic gubernatorial primary for next year," Davis says.
Davis says lots of political organizations, like labor unions, environmental groups or health reform advocates, will likely try to exploit this dynamic.
Haslam says the group will target much of its voter outreach increasing turnout among people who haven't voted in the past.
According to Haslam, Rights and Democracy will also work to recruit and promote progressive-minded candidates for local House and Senate races.
Issue-advocacy organizations aren't required to disclose the identity of their donors, but Haslam says Rights and Democracy will unveil its contributors in the coming weeks. The group has scheduled a formal kick-off event for Labor Day.