Republicans Target Governorship in Bernie Sanders’ Vermont

Nathan L. Gonzales August 18, 2016 · 9:30 AM EDT

Sen. Bernie Sanders believes his political revolution will elect progressive candidates around the country, but Republicans have their sights set on electing a governor in his home state.

Even though Vermont is viewed as a liberal New England state, it wasn’t that long ago that it had a Republican governor. Jim Douglas was elected in 2002 (succeeding Democratic Gov. Howard Dean) and re-elected three times to two-year terms.

Democrat Peter Shumlin won the open seat in 2010 (when Douglas didn’t seek re-election) with just less than 50 percent of the vote and re-elected easily two years later. But in 2014, Shumlin won narrowly, 46.5-45.2 percent, and he is not seeking re-election this year.

GOP optimism this cycle centers around Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. The former state senator, construction contractor and former stock car driver has crafted a positive image in spite of his party affiliation.

The lieutenant governor is a separately elected position in the Green Mountain State. Scott was initially elected in 2010, 49-42 percent, over Democrat Steve Howard and then re-elected in 2012 with 57 percent and 2014 with 62 percent in a field without a Democratic nominee.

Scott won this year’s Republican primary 60-40 percent over Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman and will face former state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter in the general election. The former state senator won the August 9 Democratic primary with just shy of 50 percent against former state senator/Google executive Matt Dunne (37 percent) and state Sen. Peter Galbraith (9 percent).

Hillary Clinton will likely destroy Donald Trump in Vermont. The GOP nominee may even have a tough time cracking the 30 percent threshold narrowly crossed by Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008 and President George H. W. Bush in 1992.

But there is enough evidence of Scott’s initial appeal that Democrats can’t take this race for granted. We’re changing our rating from Safe for Democrats to Democrat Favored.

Democratic strategists admit that Scott starts the race with good favorability numbers but they also have a plan to educate voters on the Republican’s position on paid sick leave, climate change, and raising the minimum wage. Democrats also believe in Minter’s candidate skills and Sanders’ status in the state will ultimately add up to a victory.

Republicans didn’t waste any time trying to solidify Scott’s positive image in advance of Democratic attacks. The Republican Governors Association began airing a television ad less than a day after the primary voters were counted.

“Phil Scott: He’s working hard to make Vermont better for everyone by working hand-in-hand with leaders of all parties,” according to the narrator. “As governor, Phil Scott will restore trust in state government, bring new jobs to Vermont, and focus on solving problems, not playing politics. Vermont has some challenges, but when we work together, we can do great things. Phil Scott for governor. He’ll put Vermont back on the right track for everyone.”

It’s likely to be just the beginning of the ad campaign from Republicans. The RGA is flush with cash and Vermont is an inexpensive state to advertise in.

Third-party candidates could play an important role, considering if no candidate reaches 50 percent on Nov. 8 the state Legislature will decide the next governor.

Democrats dodged a potentially large obstacle after the Progressive Party failed to put a candidate on the ballot in the gubernatorial race. But winemaker and retired Boston Red Sox Pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee, 69, is running as a Liberty Union candidate, the same party that launched Sanders’ career in the 1970s. He’s isn’t likely to garner a lot of support, but a few points from Minter from the most liberal voters could be significant in a close contest.

The race still feels like a long-shot for Republicans. But if Democrats don’t come together and if they have a hard time changing Scott’s public image, Vermont could develop into a serious Democratic headache.