Scott Milne is taking the race for Vermont governor to the bitter end, hoping to unseat a Democratic incumbent with a high national profile — or at least to bring some transparency to an ongoing scandal over the state’s hiring of Obamacare person of interest Jonathan Gruber.
Thanks to a horrendous election performance by Governor Peter Shumlin and an unusual feature of Vermont’s constitution, the gubernatorial race is still not settled. In this month’s election, Shumlin, a two-term incumbent, took 46 percent of the popular vote, edging out Milne, a political neophyte who jumped into the race very late in the year, by just 2,434 votes out of nearly 200,000. That was the worst performance of any recent incumbent governor and possibly the worst in the history of the Green Mountain State.
It also means that the race still isn’t settled. According to Vermont’s constitution, gubernatorial elections in which no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote go to the state legislature for a decision by secret ballot. The process went unused through most of the 20th century, but some recent winners in open races, including Shumlin in 2010 and Republican Jim Douglas in 2002, have gotten into office via legislative vote. One Vermont expert says the legislative vote was not used at all between 1852 and 1986.
But it is highly unusual for an incumbent to do this poorly in a reelection campaign. Douglas won his subsequent campaigns by solid majorities, as did Shumlin in 2012.
Milne is betting that that vote indicates a high level of disenchantment with Shumlin.
“Peter Shumlin is the incumbent, and he performed the worst of any governor running for reelection in recent memory,” Milne tells National Review Online. “We didn’t have any paid staff, just a close circle of supporters. We ran an insurgent campaign; we were outspent five to one, but we still came within fewer than 2,500 votes of being the top vote-getter. So we’ve got the momentum on our side.”
Milne concedes that his odds in the state house are slim, and Vermont observers say he has only a very outside chance of winning. In past legislative votes, the top gubernatorial vote-getter has won (though no other races have been as close as this one). And although Republicans picked up eight seats in the state house and two in the state senate on November 4, Shumlin’s Democrats retain a large majority in both houses, including a supermajority in the state senate.
The question is whether they’re actually Shumlin’s Democrats. The governor is notorious for having a fraught relationship with his own party, a problem that has been exacerbated by Shumlin’s antics in creating what he hopes will be the nation’s first single-payer health-care system. Since the election, it has come to light that Shumlin hired MIT’s Jonathan Gruber — who has been caught discussing the stupidity of the electorate and the intentional obscurity of the Affordable Care Act’s language — to consult in the construction of the system, which is slated to debut in 2016.
After Gruber’s comments came to light, Shumlin last week initially backed his $400,000 contract, but he pulled the plug shortly afterward. By that point, Vermont taxpayers had already paid Gruber more than $160,000.
“Throughout the campaign we referred to the governor as reckless with the people’s money,” Milne says. “The state’s bond rating has been downgraded. The Gruber thing didn’t come out until a week after the election, when the governor’s office finally responded to a Freedom of Information Act request. There was no reason that it took so long to know about Gruber. This contract was signed in the first ten days of July. Our fiscal year starts July 1.”
Vermont Republican-party chairman David Sunderland notes that the single-payer plan is not the only thing that’s been going south way up north.
“Shumlin is very vulnerable,” Sunderland tells NRO. “The October unemployment numbers were not great. Our state’s economy has been stagnant. The controversy over Gruber has come on top of all that.”
Shumlin did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the Democratic Governors Association, of which he is currently chairman. That Shumlin heads the organization despite his tanking popularity in his own state suggests trouble for the DGA. Vice chairman John Hickenlooper also failed to get a majority in his recent reelection in Colorado, while finance chairman Martin O’Malley’s lieutenant governor was defeated in an upset by Republican Larry Hogan in Maryland (O’Malley was term-limited). Jay Nixon, the embattled governor of Missouri, is on the DGA’s executive committee.
Nevertheless, the DGA’s opposite number has not taken an interest in Milne’s dark-horse effort. The Republican Governors Association did not respond to requests for comment, but Milne characterizes the national party’s help with his campaign, before and after the election, as “zero” — a level of neglect he says may have been a blessing. “I think one of the reasons I did so well is that my campaign was myself, my family, and close supporters,” he says. “If RGA had come in and turned it into a typical national election, we might have lost some of our appeal.”
The legislative vote is scheduled for early January, and the Vermont establishment has been turning up the pressure on Milne to concede. In an old-school talking-head video editorial, WPTZ president Kyle Grimes called last week for Milne to end the “wrangling over the next governor,” saying ”that issue was decided by the voters on November 4.” Although this last statement is factually incorrect in view of the state’s constitution, it is true that previous total-vote losers have bowed out before the legislature took up the vote.
But Milne points to Shumlin’s record of secrecy — including his failure to give details about the outsourcing of some state renewable energy authorities to Canadian contractors — as a reason to keep up pressure on the unpopular governor.
“If me sticking around and losing in the legislature gets Vermonters some transparency, it will be worth it,” he says.
In a press release last week, Milne hedged on the concession calls, noting that he intended to be “thoughtful” but pointing to the widespread public support his insurgent campaign has received.
“Our constitution is a great treasure. It was the first constitution in America to abolish slavery and to grant the vote to folks that didn’t own property,” Milne said. “I see great value in deferring to the constitution, which requires the legislature to elect our governor when we end up with a situation like the Milne–Shumlin race in 2014.”