In Vermont Primary, Challengers Fight For Name Recognition

Aug 9, 2018

Tuesday, August 14, is primary election day in Connecticut and Vermont. In Vermont, voters have big decisions ahead for governor and the U.S. House.

For more on these contests, I talked with Vermont Public Radio's Peter Hirschfeld. I asked him how Republican Governor Phil Scott has been dealing with a single GOP challenger.

Peter Hirschfeld, VPR: As you might expect, the incumbent governor is talking very little, publicly, about his re-election campaign. Incoming politicians often try to inhabit the role of dutiful public servant more than campaigner. Phil Scott's been following that that predictable path.

But there are reasons to think that perhaps Phil Scott is more vulnerable than people might have thought. Just a few months ago, there was national polling outfit that did a poll in April that showed Phil Scott was one of the most popular governors in the country. He had a net approval rating of 44 percent.

They did another poll last month, though, and Phil Scott's approval ratings really cratered. So Phil Scott acting confident, sounding confident, but there's reason to believe that he's not in nearly as strong a position heading into this re-election campaign as he once was.

Adam Frenier, NEPR: On the Democratic side, there's four candidates vying to move on to the general election. There's been some interesting storylines there, including Christine Hallquist, who would be the first openly-transgender woman if elected governor. And 14-year-old Ethan Sonneborn, who is also on the Democratic ballot. Still, there's one poll that suggests that the Democratic candidates are struggling with name recognition amongst voters. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

All of these candidates are political newbies, really. None of them have held any public office of note before. None of them have ever staged statewide campaigns before.

So they have a lot of work to do, in terms of getting their names out to voters. We had a poll that suggested as much.

However, they are getting around the state. They have ramped up into debate season here, so I think that the name recognition issue is something that will, to some extent, solve itself as they get more earned media, as we begin to see some of them perhaps go on TV with campaign ads.

But certainly, they face an uphill battle in terms of getting not just their names, but their platform known to voters.

I do have to ask you: how does a 14-year-old end up on the ballot for governor, despite the fact he can't even vote for himself?

That is one of the quirks of Vermont's constitution. There are a lot of state constitutions that lay out very specific and explicit age requirements for who can hold statewide office, and how old you have to be. Vermont is not a state that contains one of those provisions.

Ethan Sonneborn born says he thinks that the framers of the Vermont constitution were well aware of the fact that other states it included those age requirements, but decided they wanted to let the voters be the ones who decide whether or not somebody is fit for office, and if that means a 14-year-old is the best candidate, then so be it.

Shifting gears, Vermont's lone congressman Democrat Peter Welch is also facing a primary challenge. He's been on the job more than a decade, and has coasted to victory in recent years. Any signs of trouble for him?

We commissioned a poll, Vermont Public Radio did, that showed Walsh's approval rating at 47 percent, which is a little bit lower than I think a lot of people would have guessed it would come in at. That said, Peter Welch has a ton of money in the bank, in terms of his campaign war chest, and the two opponents that he's facing in the Democratic primary right now are not household names by any stretch.

Conventional wisdom at this point suggests that Peter Welch is safe right now. While his popularity may not be what it was at its peak, he is somebody that people know, and somebody who people have been very comfortable voting in the office in the past.

Correction: Incumbent Governor Phil Scott has just one GOP challenger, not two.