by Mike Smith It was this headline in VTDigger that probably caught supporters of Governor Phil Scott by surprise: “Scott commits to lake cleanup, even if new taxes are needed.” They weren’t surprised by the governor’s commitment to clean up our lakes but rather his reluctance to rule out new taxes. In fairness to Scott, the story indicated that he would much prefer to find lake cleanup money through existing resources. And frankly, it’s rare for a governor to rule out future tax increases, because caution dictates that unforeseen — even emergency — events may intervene and force them to break such a pledge. But the headline illustrates Scott’s biggest political vulnerability, which, ironically, is his biggest political asset: his commitment to make Vermont more affordable.
If Vermonters perceive that Scott is reneging on his affordability pledge, then he’s likely to find himself in political hot water, because such backtracking will damage his credibility. And once you lose credibility in politics it’s only a matter of time before you lose an election.
However, if the governor is successful at convincing Vermonters he has improved their ability to live and work in this state, then his election prospects will continue to be bright.
Scott’s fortunes ride on making Vermont more affordable because essentially he has asked Vermonters to judge him by his achievements in this area. When you bank your political future on a single issue, Vermonters will likely hold you accountable to that issue. For example, Gov. Peter Shumlin promised a single-payer health care plan, and when he couldn’t deliver on that pledge his political fortunes waned.
So far Scott has proven to be an effective and popular governor, and he’ll be difficult to beat in next year’s election. But he does have vulnerabilities, and they lie at both ends of the political spectrum. The governor isn’t popular with many conservative Republicans, given that he’s more liberal than they are on social and cultural issues. And he’ll never win over liberal Democrats — a powerful segment of the Vermont Democratic Party — because he’s a Republican.
So far Scott keeps conservatives in his camp by touting fiscal prudence. He doesn’t need liberal Democrats because he attracts many independents with his economic message. Economic issues are always the No. 1 concern of Vermonters.
However, any equivocation in his affordability message increases the chances of conservatives abandoning him. This can become an embarrassing political problem for the governor, especially if a conservative candidate challenges him in a primary. Throughout his political career, Sen. Jim Jeffords often struggled to fend off conservative challengers in a Republican primary.
In addition, if Democrats can come up with an economic message as potent as Scott’s — something they have so far failed to do — support among independents could wane too.
If both those scenarios come to pass, the governor will be left with shrinking support and an increased likelihood of facing a serious political challenger.
Jeffords’ decision to leave the Republican Party and become an independent was bold, but his chances of future victories as a Republican here in Vermont were probably limited anyway because of the two political extremes pushing in on him, which ultimately shrank his support in the middle.
For Scott the reality is this: When you live by the economic message you can be politically slain by it.
In his first budget Scott was able to avoid reliance on new fees or taxes. Fairly or unfairly, this will be a standard that the governor is judged by in the future, and any significant increases in fees or taxes will have a political impact.
Realistically, Scott is likely to cruise to re-election. History is on his side. No first-term governor has lost a re-election bid since F. Ray Keyser did in 1962. In fact, in recent times, Howard Dean, Jim Douglas and Shumlin clobbered their competition in their first attempt at re-election.
But re-election efforts get more difficult with each successive contest, and winning relies primarily on the ability to deliver on the promises a governor makes to Vermonters. Scott’s future re-election prospects ultimately will be determined by his ability to deliver on his affordability pledge.
Mike Smith is a regular columnist for VTDigger and Vermont Business Magazine. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas.