Southern Vermont candidates fall short in statewide races

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For Southern Vermont's statewide candidates, primary day started with promise and ended with mixed emotions.

As mostly newcomers to statewide politics, they were part of races that largely saw past electoral experience rewarded, with one notable exception.

Republican voters overwhelmingly nominated Gov. Phil Scott for a third term, rejecting the "Agripublican" platform proposed by first-time challenger John Klar. They also chose business owner Scott Milne, who remains best-known for a race he almost won, rather than first-time candidate Meg Hansen of Manchester, for lieutenant governor.

Democrats were split on the question of electoral experience. For a challenger to Scott, they picked Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who previously served in the Legislature, instead of former Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe or Bennington attorney Patrick Winburn. But the Democrats chose a new face in assistant attorney general Molly Gray, rather than State Senators Tim Ashe and Debbie Ingram or activist Brenda Siegel, to run against Milne for the No. 2 seat being vacated by Zuckerman.

Doug Hoffer's experience as auditor was enough to earn him a Democratic primary win against state Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan of Dorset.

Five candidates residing in Bennington and Windham counties took their case to voters in the state's primary elections, three of them running in their first statewide race.

Hansen finished second in the race for lieutenant governor, with about 30 percent of the vote among five candidates. Winburn placed third in the hunt for the Democratic nomination for governor with just above 7 percent. And Sullivan came in second with 35.8 percent, as her wins in Southern Vermont could not make up for Hoffer's success in Chittenden County.

Siegel, a second-time candidate running for lieutenant governor, finished third in a field of four. She garnered about 9 percent of the vote, placing a distant third.

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Voter turnout for the primary appeared to have obliterated the previous record for participation. As of noon Wednesday, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, the Secretary of State's office reported unofficial turnout of 157,121. That would shatter the previous record of 120,132, set in the 2016 primary.

While Secretary of State Jim Condos cautioned that the results remain preliminary, he said the turnout "is a clear indicator that Vermonters embraced voting absentee by mail, and voting safely in-person during a pandemic."

"From the high volume of mail in ballots, to the utilization of drive-thru polling places, it's clear that Vermonters are prepared for the measures necessary to ensure safe voting in 2020 - now that's `Vermont Strong'. We should be very proud," Condos said. "I especially want to thank Vermont's Town Clerks, who have worked incredibly hard with our office to plan and implement a process ensuring an accessible, fair, safe and secure election."

Hansen said she was proud of the grassroots enthusiasm and support her candidacy generated. She said she felt that the GOP establishment undercut her candidacy by drafting Milne, a business owner from Pomfret who famously nearly upset Gov. Peter Shumlin in the 2014 gubernatorial election, to run for the seat.

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"I think everybody in that circle knows full well that Scott Milne can't defeat Molly Gray," Hansen said Tuesday night. "You need to really fight and run a wonderful campaign on terms of outreach and messaging. You need to be really diligent and devoted and committed. So many prior statewide races Scott Milne has run proven that's not going to happen."

"I'm very outspoken about my views, I have strong convictions and I'm not a puppet. They never liked that about me," Hansen added.

While Hansen did not make excuses for herself, she said Milne's ability to raise funds, combined with the difficulty of campaigning as a first-time office seeker in a pandemic, proved difficult.

"We're still in a state of emergency," she said Tuesday night. "If I'm a first time how do get my name out how raise money when 1 in 4 Vermonters are unemployed?"

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On Tuesday night, Siegel repeated a theme she raised last week about the role of privilege in the race, and how it had been difficult for a marginalized candidate - in her case, a working single mother - to run in a statewide contest.

"We don't have the same resources or the same access" as other candidates in the race, Siegel said. "I want to reiterate that everyone has the right to use tools available to them ... and I trust whoever wins this race is going to fight to make sure we have an equal and level playing field.

That said, "I think we did incredible work," Siegel added. "We got to have a comprehensive conversation about privilege that has never been seen on the campaign trial before. That needs to be talked about if we're ever going to change who gets to lead."

Sullivan, who is still on the ballot for her Bennington-Rutland House district and may have secured the Republican nomination for auditor as a write-in, was pleased with her performance in Southern Vermont, where she won Bennington, Manchester, Rutland City and Springfield and finished a close second in Brattleboro.

"When we put together our team in February we talked a lot about strategies to get visibility up north. We didn't factor in a pandemic happening and campaign restrictions only weeks later," Sullivan said. "So while we are disappointed we were prohibited from getting up to Chittenden and Washington Counties, our campaign was totally grassroots. In another year the results up there would have been different."

Emily Peyton of Putney was entered in two races — the Republican primaries for governor and attorney general. In the AG's race, she finished a close second behind H. Brooke Paige. Peyton finished with 20,270 votes, 1,117 votes behind Paige.

In the governor's race, Peyton finished well behind Gov. Scott and runner-up Klar, with 1,001 total votes.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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