By Louis Jacobson
Vermont is one of the bluest states in the nation. It gave Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden two-thirds of the vote in 2020, providing Biden with his single biggest winning margin in any state. Vermont sends a socialist, Bernie Sanders, to the U.S. Senate, and it has one of the few strong left-wing third parties of any state.
Yet for three elections running, Vermont’s voters have chosen Phil Scott, a Republican, to be their governor – by increasing margins. Scott won his first two-year term in 2016 by 9 points, his second in 2018 by 15 points, and in 2020 by a stunning 41 points.
How is it possible that the same state has given politicians as diverse as Biden, Sanders and Scott overwhelming victories? Political observers in Vermont credit Scott’s savvy and his moderate approach to governing, as well as his location in a state that’s sufficiently small and independent that personal appeal can trump national politics.
“Getting caught up in national issues does not work here,” says Michael Donohue, a Vermont Republican State Committee member and former chairman of the Republican Committee in Chittenden County, which includes the state’s biggest city, Burlington.
Before becoming governor, Scott co-owned DuBois Construction and was a stock car enthusiast. He was elected to the state Senate in 2000, then in 2010 won the lieutenant governorship. That office is elected separately from the governorship, which was won that year by Democrat Peter Shumlin. Then, in 2016, as Hillary Clinton was winning the state by a 27-point margin, Scott won the first of his three gubernatorial terms so far.
In Vermont, the default is for Democrats to win statewide office. In fact, Scott has been the only Vermont Republican to win statewide office in more than a dozen years. That said, GOP candidates who take a pragmatic approach tend to be given a fair hearing in Vermont, and they could become favorites if they are facing a left-wing candidate in a statewide race. Vermont’s recent Republican governors – Richard Snelling (1977-1985 and 1991) and Jim Douglas (2003-2011) – have, like Scott, emphasized moderation and bipartisanship.
“Vermonters have historically voted for the person, not the party,” says Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, a Democrat who is credited with working effectively with Scott. “Again and again,” she says, Scott has “shown a willingness to cross partly lines.”
This is possible because of Vermont’s small size. With 643,000 residents, it’s the second-smallest state in population, and it’s more compact than the smallest, Wyoming.
In a typical state Senate district, where Scott cut his political teeth, “it’s manageable to get to know a good portion of your constituents,” says Corey Parent, a second-term Republican state senator.
In Vermont, “voters like politicians who can connect well on a retail level and are sort of everyday citizens,” says Neale Lunderville, who has been tapped for various positions by Douglas, Shumlin and Scott and is now CEO of Vermont Gas Systems. The state’s small scale “makes it harder to get to the political fisticuffs we see in Washington.”
Indeed, Conor Casey, the former executive director of the state Democratic Party and a City Council member in the state capital of Montpelier, recalls trying “everything” against Scott in campaigns and failing to make a dent.
“We tried being nice, we tried being mean, but nothing stuck, because voters knew him,” he says. “If you attack Scott, your own favorable rating goes down.”
Another reason for Scott’s success is Vermont voters’ penchant for political balance. Whenever Vermont’s governorship has come open, it has changed partisan hands every time since 1961. “People say, ‘maybe one party shouldn’t have all the marbles,'” says Douglas, the former Republican governor.
Because Democrats have strong majorities in both chambers of the legislature, voters see Scott as providing a brake on a big leftward lurch.
“Scott’s big word is ‘affordability,'” says Philip Baruth, a six-term state senator who affiliates with both the Democratic and Progressive parties. “He’s generally pro-economic development and low-tax, and doesn’t like things he views as not in the government’s purview or as costing too much, like universal health care.” (Even Scott’s Democratic predecessor, Shumlin, considered a universal health care plan for Vermont but backed off amid cost concerns.)
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Scott’s biggest battle with the legislature was over family leave. Scott wanted a voluntary system and vetoed a Democratic-backed mandatory proposal that would have come with a $29 million payroll tax hike. Scott and the legislature also sparred over the scale of a minimum wage hike.
“He said, ‘Look, this is the hard job of budgeting, and we need to do this within the reality of a tight budget,'” says Donohue, the state GOP official. “That is a message that resonates with a lot of folks who consider themselves Democrats.”
At the same time, Scott has gone much further than Republican governors elsewhere to tolerate Democratic priorities. He signed a bill to protect abortion rights, and he allowed bills to legalize marijuana sales and to overhaul the rules for the use of deadly force by police to became law without his signature.
Most notably, Scott acted contrary to the heavily rural state’s aversion to gun control legislation, following the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the foiling of a school shooting in Vermont. Scott worked with legislators to enact a ban on bump stocks and large magazines, as well as a process to temporarily confiscate guns from individuals deemed to pose an immediate threat.
His work on gun legislation drove a wedge between Scott and some hard-line elements of his party. However, many Democrats and independents appreciated his efforts.
“That was the moment when Democrats gave him the benefit of not being an ideologue,” Baruth says.
Scott further bolstered his standing with the state’s Democratic majority by repeatedly distancing himself from then-President Donald Trump. Scott criticized actions like Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord and his policies on immigration. Scott also backed Trump’s primary challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, and voted for Biden, who he says could “heal the country.”
However, not even this record would have produced his commanding victory in 2020 had Scott not led a bipartisan – and effective – response to the coronavirus. The state has consistently had a low rate of infections, hospitalizations and death. It later achieved the country’s best rate of vaccination.
“His approval rating for COVID is through the roof,” said Chris Graff, a former journalist and longtime political observer in Vermont. “Most Vermonters are very proud when Vermont shows up as leading the nation, and they give Phil the credit.”
Scott didn’t do it by himself, says Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis. “He had very good people in key positions,” Davis says, including Health Commissioner Mark Levine, whose briefings led some to dub him the Anthony Fauci of Vermont.
“We didn’t agree on everything – the legislature did oversight and made some changes to his programs – but his efforts were nimble, thoughtful and decisive,” says Baruth, the Democratic-Progressive legislator.
Scott echoed this approach in July 2021, when he appointed Christine Hallquist as executive director of the newly created Vermont Community Broadband Board, which is charged with extending internet access throughout the state. Hallquist, the former CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, was the Democrat who Scott defeated handily in 2018.
Despite their campaigns against each other, Scott realized that Hallquist was “absolutely the right person” for the job, Lunderville says.
What’s less clear is what kind of future awaits Republicans other than Scott in the state. While Vermont is less Trump-friendly than most states, the state’s Republican Party has a Trumpish streak that turns off Democrats and many independents.
“The party organization is very Trumpy,” says John Walters, a longtime Vermont political journalist. If he were a moderate Republican who wanted to move up, Walters says, “I’d be discouraged.” Indeed, Donohue, the GOP official, jokes that his goal “is to continue to plead for the governor to run again.”
Rising political stars in the state say the pragmatic approach is worthy of copying elsewhere – if the national parties can think outside the box.
“At a time when we are seeing so much divisiveness nationally, I think our small state can serve as a model for a healthy issue-focused democracy,” says Gray, the Democratic lieutenant governor. “We certainly don’t agree on everything, but we are willing to come together and work together.”
Parent, the Republican legislator, agrees.
“I’m a millennial,” he says. “Looking at conservative millennials, they appreciate the pragmatic, socially moderate approach with a real look at fiscal issues. Unfortunately, national Republicans are stuck fighting fights that turn millennials off.”