In an election cycle of shocking surprises—Larry Hogan’s win in Maryland, Mark Warner’s near-death experience—none are greater than the slap in the face Vermont voters gave Governor Peter Shumlin. Ten days after the election, Shumlin, who as Chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association was tasked with helping elect other Democratic governors, still has not been declared winner in a race no one thought was a contest.
In 2014, few thought he would have a tough race. Republicans had a difficult time fielding a candidate, and only after the 2012 Marijuana Party candidate announced she’d run as a Republican did the party establishment, led by former governor Jim Douglas, unify around businessman Scott Milne. Though he had never held office before, he was the son of two prominent Republicans and had the sort of bio Vermonters love: raised on a farm, small businessman, an avid hiker who lived next to the Appalachian Trail.
He spent only $20,000 on television to win the August Republican primary, and no one seriously thought he had a chance to win the general. At least until around 9 pm on election night when the numbers showed him in a dead heat with Peter Shumlin. In the end, Shumlin led by a puny 2,434 votes, less than the 50 percent margin needed for victory under Vermont law. This throws the election into the Vermont state house, where Democrats have a sizeable advantage.
Milne had scheduled a press conference for Wednesday, an announcement that was assumed to signal he’d be conceding. But he left his Burlington hotel without holding it, and said he’s going to wait until the results are official. He did not rule out a recount.
Assuming he sticks it out, the election will be thrown into the Vermont state house, where Democrats have a sizeable advantage. It’s assumed the vote will go Shumlin’s way. But for a governor who was never very popular with fellow state legislators when he was a colleague and has often treated them dismissively as governor, it is most humbling that his fate now rests in their hands.
How did the Chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in the bluest of blue states not even make it to 50 while Vermont’s single Congressman, Democratic Peter Welch, won with 64 percent? This in a state that has a near record-low unemployment of 4.4 percent.
Start with Shumlin’s disastrous implementation of Obamacare. While states like Maryland and Oregon received a great deal of attention for their dysfunctional state run exchanges, Vermont received little notice for what is surely the greatest meltdown. A year into Obamacare, the state’s site, Vermont Health Connect, is completely down and has been for a couple of months. Even when it was open, it never really worked. This after more than $100 million was spent on the site.
In a state so frugal that the purchase of a new fire engine is debated vigorously in yearly town hall meetings, the notion of throwing away $100 million is viewed as near criminal. Indeed, there may be criminal fraud in the process. Shumlin’s top health care official, Mark Larson, has admitted he deceived state legislators on security breach problems with the site. Shumlin said he was “tremendously disappointed” – then kept him on the job.
Vermont is the only state that requires purchase of any individual health care insurance policies through the state exchange. Yes, that’s the same exchange that isn’t functioning. Shumlin has turned health care in Vermont into a Kafka-like cartoon: you must buy through the exchange and the exchange doesn’t work.
To make it even more bizarre, Shumlin has plans to turn Vermont into the only state with single-payer health insurance. This from the chief executive who can’t even get a health care exchange functioning for only 660,000, residents, about the same number who will see Ohio State play in the The Shoe this season. Shumlin estimates the plan will require $2 billion in new taxes for a state already reeling from high property taxes. It’s crazy.
Shumlin is not helped by his general reputation of mean spiritedness. Last year he was severely criticized for his handling of a land deal with a neighbor in financial distress. After the unemployed neighbor fell behind in taxes, Shumlin, who’s worth north of $10 million, purchased his land for a one fourth its appraised value while failing to inform the man, who never graduated from high school and has been hospitalized with mental issues, that there were state programs available to assist him in trying to keep his land. When the story surfaced in the press, Shumlin backtracked and said it all been a misunderstanding.
While there is no party registration in Vermont, for an incumbent Democrat to fall under 50 percent requires a lot of Democratic-leaning voters to turn the other way. Had there not been a Libertarian in the race who received over 8,000 votes, Shumlin likely would have lost. (Some Tea Party types who felt that Republican Scott Milne was too moderate supported the Libertarian.) Vermont holds gubernatorial elections every two years, and while 2016 in a presidential cycle should be a better year for Democrats, this near-death experience for Shumlin may very well encourage a serious challenger in the Democratic primary and if Scot Milne choses to run again, he certainly will start with great credibility after his near upset.
As it stands, the Peter Shumlin debacle highlights voters’ demand for basic competency. Vermont is a well-educated, largely rural, homogeneous state. It shouldn’t be a difficult state to run well. Peter Shumlin has been doing a lousy job and voters turned against him, even though he outspent his opponent five to one. In a terrible year for Democrats, the near loss of the chairman of the Democratic Gubernatorial Committee is one more epic failure.