Today, the number of open gubernatorial races rose to an outstanding 20. That’s right, 40% of the states will have a new chief executive in January 2011 just by virtue of term-limits and retirements - before we even get into defeated incumbents! The latest to call it quits is Vermont’s Republican Governor Jim Douglas. His retirement gives Democrats a golden opportunity to reclaim a position that has escaped them ever since Howard Dean left the Governor’s Mansion in 2002.
Douglas was narrowly elected to an open seat that year, and he has had to face voters every two years ever since. Despite Vermont’s staunchly Democratic status, he faced no trouble winning re-election; never was his closest competitor closer than 15%. One of the highest profile acts of Douglas’s tenure will undoubtedly be his decision to veto legislation legalizing gay marriage; the state legislature successful override was the first time in Douglas’s entire governorship that his veto had been overridden.
With Democrats defending a large number of tough open seats - Wyoming, Tennessee, Kansas - it’s undoubtedly good for their morale to have some governorships they’re likely to reclaim. Just like Rhode Island and Hawaii, other states whose Republican Governors are departing, Vermont is liberal enough that Democrats have to be considered the slight early favorites to win this race. Yet, to pick-up this governorship they’ll have to negotiate a meaningful alliance with the state’s powerful Progressive Party.
A three-party state: Democrats, Republicans and Progressives
Candidates who were already positioning themselves to run against Douglas include: Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, former Lieutenant Governor, former gubernatorial candidate and current state Senator Doug Racine and state Senator Susan Bartless. Another potential contender is State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding. All in all, Democrats have a deep enough bench that they’ll have no trouble fielding a strong candidate - and their primary will more likely than not be crowded. (Note that this could have an impact on the general election since Vermont’s primary will be held late, in September 2010.)
That said, local races often run counter to a state’s federal loyalties and Republicans have a clear shot at holding on to this seat. They have a strong potential candidate in Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie, who has been elected every two years since 2002 - and done so on his own name rather than on a ticket with Douglas. This means that voters are accustomed to voting for Dubie. If he runs, he should be able to keep the race highly competitive. If he does not, the GOP’s situation becomes more unclear as the party has no other heir apparent ready to take up Douglas’s mantle.
Complicating the picture is the possibility of a three-way race with the Progressive Party’s nominee. In 2008, Anthony Pollina ran a strong campaign, received the endorsements of Vermont’s three largest unions and came out narrowly ahead of the Democratic nominee - and it’s not like Gaye Symington was a nobody since she was the state Speaker at the time of her run. (Pollina also received 10% of the vote in the 2000 gubernatorial vote and 25% in the 2002 Lieutenant Governor race, which was Dubie’s first statewide victory.)
Democrats are now trying to convince Progressives to sit out the next cycle, but how do you convince a party they should be the one to exit the race when they beat you in the preceding cycle? Pollina just set out conditions for the Progressive Party not to participate in the upcoming election. For the Democratic nominee to benefit from the party’s endorsement rather than have to face a 3-way race, he or she will have to (1) support a single-payer health care system to be implemented at the state level, (2) oppose the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and (3) champion labor demands regarding the state’s pension and unemployment plans.
In a staunchly blue state like Vermont, expecting a liberal Democratic nominee should not be that controversial and progressives have a big enough political capital that they shouldn’t be expected to just roll over. With Pollina himself potentially running again in 2010, it’s tough to imagine how Democrats can conquer Montpelier if they do not seriously respond to the Progressives’ efforts to push the state leftward.
Leahy is safe
Douglas’s press conference also has repercussions in another Vermont race: In indicating that he would not run for any office whatsoever next year, Douglas effectively ruled out challenging Senator Pat Leahy. This was not a race he was expected to make, nor would he have had much of a chance against the veteran senator (a January poll found Leahy easily crushing Douglas). Yet, Douglas was the only Republican in any position to endanger Leahy and the NRSC could have at least hoped to make the race worth watching, tie down Leahy to his home state force the DSCC to divert resources. And if the GOP did benefit from as big a wave as some conservatives are predicting, could the tide not submerge Vermont?
Not that we thought Leahy was in danger, then, but Douglas was enough of a question mark for him not to join the invulnerable category. With Douglas’s exit, Leahy becomes one of the safest incumbents in the country. Wave or no wave, he’ll be in the Senate in January 2011.