During this general election, Vermont voters are deciding whether to re-elect the incumbent Republican governor or replace him. The Democratic challenger has faced an uphill battle as Vermont history tends to favor incumbents, and the governor’s popularity has been bolstered by his handling of the pandemic.
Four days after Vermont Republican Governor Phil Scott delivered his State of the State address, Democratic/Progressive Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman announced he would challenge him for the state’s top seat in the 2020 election. At the time, before the pandemic struck, Zuckerman said he planned to campaign on a range of issues. “The governor has thwarted serious increases to the minimum wage. The issue of climate crisis which the governor had a recommendation panel that made 54 recommendations of which almost none have been implemented and affordable housing is a huge issue and while the governor and the legislature have done some work on that there’s a lot more to be done there. So those are some of the issues.”
But then the pandemic hit. Scott began holding regular televised updates on the state’s response. In late May he officially announced he would run a third two-year term, but also said he would not actively campaign until after the primary. “It’s going to be a tough couple of years ahead as we work our way out of this pandemic and the financial situation, the economic crisis, that’s coming with it and I think I want to see it through. As far as participating in debates right now I want to focus on my job which is being governor. When we get to a point when we can we get everybody back to somewhat normal I’ll participate in debates and so forth.”
Zuckerman meanwhile faced a Democratic primary, which he won against three challengers with 44 percent of the vote. But Middlebury College Professor Emeritus of Political Science Eric Davis says Zuckerman’s campaign has been challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. “David Zuckerman has the difficult task of convincing voters that at a time when Vermont has some of the best numbers regarding the COVID-19 virus of any state in the country the state should make a change in leadership in the middle of the pandemic crisis. When Zuckerman declared his candidacy back in January he was hoping to run on issues such as an increase in the minimum wage, paid family leave, a more aggressive energy and environmental policy. And the onset of the virus basically threw his campaign into a loop. Scott has hardly campaigned at all. He has been holding press conferences first three times a week now two times a week so he gets on the news a lot. But Zuckerman is in a very very difficult situation.”
The two gubernatorial candidates have debated. An exchange during a September VT Digger forum highlighted some of their differences as Zuckerman began discussing energy policy. “Often he's made proposals in budget addresses where there's great new ideas and you're right the legislature doesn't go along with them because quietly money was taken from other programs to do it. We need to invest much more in weatherization. Under my earlier plan we would be putting 20 million additional dollars per year into weatherization.”
Scott: “If you had this grand scheme you're the President of the Senate, you have a 24 to six majority. Why didn't you make it happen? I mean I had a lot of initiatives I put forward in the Legislature while I was the Lieutenant Governor. What happened?”
Zuckerman: “One is that the legislature pushed back against a number of your budgets including when you're going to cut schools, when you're going to cut teachers and educators…”
Scott: “Never a cut, never a cut, never a cut in schools. We spend more money every single year…”
David Zuckerman: “…but they did not go along.”
Scott: “…for education.”
Davis expects Scott to win handily. “No incumbent governor of Vermont has been defeated since 1962 and it’s unlikely that this is the year in which that string will be broken.”
Little polling is conducted in Vermont. The Vermont PBS/VPR poll published in September showed Scott leading Zuckerman 55 to 24 percent.