Chris Graff: Sorrell won as an underdog
by Chris Graff Those Democrats sure like drama! Two primary cliffhangers in two years. Two primary election nights without a winner. Two contests where every vote counted.
In 2010 the Democratic race for governor prompted a rare recount in a primary, as Peter Shumlin edged Doug Racine 18,276-18,079. The five-way race was hotly contested, attracting 74,633 voters in that Democratic primary.
This year’s race for attorney general attracted far fewer voters – roughly 40,000 – but the ending was close. No recount (as Racine requested) was needed, however, as TJ Donovan conceded on Wednesday morning.
Call it an impressive win for Bill Sorrell.
Even with all of his name recognition, even after 15 years in office, Sorrell had to be considered the underdog in this primary election campaign. He had been appointed to the office in 1997 by then-Governor Howard Dean, had never faced a serious challenge for the office, had never run a serious statewide campaign with all of its attention, debates, radio shows, negative ads.
Donovan entered the race as the young, high-energy prosecutor voicing the powerful theme that it was time for a change, for new leadership. The challenge was in the Democratic primary – not a general election. Primaries favor those with strong organizations that are able to identify supporters and deliver them to the polls. Donovan had the better organization.
So no matter what the polling showed – polls in primaries cannot be trusted because it is so difficult to find the 1-10 voters who truly will vote – Sorrell was the underdog here. Leading Democrats, labor, and many others sided with Donovan; Sorrell was even slapped by the Democratic State Committee’s impolitic refusal to grant him a seal of approval. Major newspapers backed Donovan.
The mere fact Donovan got into the race and that House Speaker Shap Smith considered doing so showed that there was discontent within the party, a dissatisfaction with Sorrell, signs that he could be defeated.
But in the end Sorrell edged out a win, helped in large part by the man who appointed him to the office: Howard Dean’s endorsement was backed by an extensive radio and television campaign. Former Governor Madeleine Kunin also worked hard on Sorrell’s behalf.
"I want you to know that in a fight like this, you find out who your friends are," said Sorrell on election night. "And I will never, ever forget what you've done for me.”
The attention given the race – the only race of interest on the party’s statewide ballot – worked to Sorrell’s benefit: More attention was focused on the race for attorney general than would have been given had there been any primary contests of note for the US Senate, US House, governor or lieutenant governor.
Now, though, we face what is bound to be one of the most boring general elections:
· US Senator Bernie Sanders will be easily re-elected;
· US Representative Peter Welch will be easily re-elected;
· Governor Peter Shumlin will be easily re-elected;
· Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott will be easily re-elected;
· Secretary of State Jim Condos will be easily re-elected.
· Sorrell will be easily re-elected.
It is hard to get excited about a general election where the most excitement at the statewide level is over the races for state treasurer and auditor of accounts. And, frankly, Democrat Beth Pearce has to be heavily favored over Republican Wendy Wilton in the race for treasurer because Pearce is an incumbent and a Democrat in a state that will see a large Obama turnout. That leaves the auditor’s race – with Republican Vince Illuzzi and Democrat Doug Hoffer – as the marquee race.
There will be some interesting state Senate and state House races around the state, but the balance of power at the State House – with the Democrats controlling both chambers – will not change.
With all of the oxygen focused nationally on the presidential contest, there will still be plenty of politics to keep everyone of the edge of their seats through November. But in Vermont, the big drama politically ended in August, with the Democratic race for attorney general.
Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of VPT's Vermont This Week, is now vice president for communications at National Life Group and a columnist for VBM Vermont Business Magazine. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation.