No Majority in Gubernatorial Election; Legislature to Vote

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No Majority in Gubernatorial Election; Legislature to Vote

By Alessandria Schumacher

While most states have elected governors and legislators who will begin their terms in 2015, the identity of Vermont’s future governor still remains in question and will be decided in a secret vote by the 180 person State Legislature in 2015.  Election Day ended with incumbent Governor Peter Shumlin (D) holding 47 percent and Republican candidate Scott Milne holding about 45 percent, with 92 percent of voting precincts reporting.  Dan Feliciano of the Libertarian Party was the next runner up after Milne.  Both Shumlin and Milne declined to declare the election either a victory or a loss, opting to wait until Wednesday when all the votes were counted.

Once all the votes were counted, however, Shumlin ended up with 89,883    votes, at 46.4 percent, and Milne with 87,788 votes, at 45.3 percent. This gave Shumlin a margin of about 2000 votes over Milne, a low enough margin for Milne to demand a recount.  Vermont has a long history of strong third party candidates who notably affect the election, and this year was no different.  Including Shumlin and Milne, there were a total of seven candidates running for governor.  Feliciano, a Libertarian, ended up holding 4.4 percent of the vote.  Emily Peyton, an Independent, came in next with 1.7 percent.  Pete Diamondstone of the Liberty Union Party held 0.9 percent, independent Bernard Peters held 0.7 percent and independent Cris Ericson held 0.6 percent.

Although Shumlin won more votes than any other candidate, the Vermont Constitution requires that the governor be elected by winning 50 percent of the votes, plus one.  If this does not happen, the decision then goes to the Legislature. It is not uncommon for the Legislature to have to choose the governor.  A single gubernatorial candidate has failed to win the simple majority 23 times in Vermont history, including in 2010, when Shumlin first ran for governor against the Republican candidate, the then-incumbent Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie.  Shumlin received 49.5 percent of the popular vote in that election and was chosen by the legislature.  In 2012, Shumlin had a decisive victory, winning 58 percent of the popular vote.

The fate of the governor is now in the hands of the Vermont House and Senate, both of which have a Democratic majority.  The Legislature typically chooses the candidate who holds the plurality of votes, but legislators are technically free to choose whichever candidate they would like.  However, the last time the Legislature chose the candidate that did not hold the plurality was in 1853 when incumbent Erastus Fairbanks of the Whig party held 43.9 percent of the popular vote, but Democratic candidate John S. Robinson, winner of 31.0 percent of the votes, was chosen by the Legislature instead.

The absence of definitive election results leaves room for speculation about the future.  The lack of a simple majority and unexpected success of a Republican candidate challenging the incumbent make a clear statement about the current political climate in Vermont.

“We’re hearing a very clear message, that folks are frustrated, that they’re hurting, that with all the talk of economic recovery that’s going mostly to the top 1 percent, too many Vermonters are still struggling to pay their bills, working too many jobs to make ends meet,” Shumlin said.
“I am incredibly grateful to all of the Vermonters who cast their ballots on my behalf yesterday,” Milne said.

The close nature of the race surprised voters and candidates alike.  The most recent polls before the election predicted Shumlin winning 47 percent of the vote, but with a 12 percent lead over Milne.  Candidates and voters expected Feliciano to draw more votes than he ultimately did.

“It was never evident to me that Scott Milne had a chance to win,” said Darcie Johnston, Feliciano’s political strategist.  Feliciano and his campaign team do not regret his staying in the election, even though had he chosen to duck out of the race Milne may have gotten his votes and won.  Johnston suggested that some voters may have come out for Feliciano who would not have considered voting for Milne. Feliciano and his campaign team did not think either Feliciano or Milne would stand a chance against Shumlin.

Milne received minimal outside support on his campaign.  Most notably, the Republican Governors Association chose not to invest in Milne, assuming he would be no competition for Shumlin.

Former Vermont Republican Governor and Executive-in-Residence at the College Jim Douglas ’72 was surprised that Feliciano drew so few votes and was disappointed that Vermont’s Republican minority failed to unite for Milne.

“When it comes down to it, they say, ‘I ought to pick someone who’s got a shot,’” Douglas said of voters who chose Milne over Feliciano. Such voters made Feliciano less of a serious candidate.

Shumlin could become the first incumbent governor in 50 years to lose to a challenger.  The situation speaks strongly to how Vermonters are feeling about the direction of the state, and Shumlin recognized that fact.

“It’s a time for me to regroup,” Shumlin said.  “You would have to be tone deaf not to be hearing voters’ concerns.”  This may have implications for how Shumlin conducts his next two years as governor, as he sees that there is currently discontent and division among Vermont’s electorate.

“What is clear is that the majority of Vermonters do not agree with the path that we are on,” Milne said, referring to the fact that the majority of votes went to candidates other than Shumlin.

“I’m voting against whoever (are) the incumbents, just to shake things up,” Rene Churchill, a resident of Waterbury Center, said.  Some voters appear to have just been looking for change, whatever the change may be.

The next two years will show whether Shumlin listened to the electorate or continued with projects that were controversial, such as transitioning Vermont to a single-payer healthcare system.  However, the power to decide who ultimately becomes governor still lies in the Legislature when they convene in January of 2015.

Other elected positions in Vermont were not nearly as close as the gubernatorial rate.  Incumbent Peter Welch of the Democratic Party won Vermont’s only seat in the US House of Representatives with 64.4 percent of the vote.  He was running against Republican Mark Donka, who won 31.1 percent.  Three candidates ran as independents, including Cris Ericson, who also ran for governor.  Matthew Andrews ran for the Liberty Union Party.

Senators Bernie Sanders, Independent, and Patrick Leahy, Democrat, were not up for reelection this year. Sanders and Leahy will both be returning to Washington and to a Republican dominated Congress.

“Whoever controls the Senate it’s only going to be by one or two votes,” Leahy said. “Either way, whether it’s the Democrats or the Republicans what I would urge is let’s try working together for a while.”  Leahy is hopeful about the future and does not view being in the minority party as a bad thing.  Leahy, about to begin his 40th year as Senator, cited seniority, rather than majority, as being more important for holding power in the Senate.

Sanders, on the other hand, fears that a Republican majority Congress will cut spending for education, Medicare, and Medicaid, as well as give tax breaks to the wealthy.

“That is not a good agenda for the American people,” Sanders, who is in the second year of his second term as senator, said.

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