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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

In The Vermont Legislature, An Unusually High Number Of Open Seats

The golden dome of the Vermont Statehouse with a blue sky background.
Angela Evancie
/
VPR file
Some party organizers have seen a "Sanders effect": a surge of interest in local races by people inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential run.

Vermont's three major political parties are targeting dozens of legislative races for the fall election because there are an unusually high number of open seats.

And some party organizers have seen a "Sanders effect": a surge of interest in local races by people inspired by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run.

The Democrats currently have 85 members in the 150-seat House and they hope to add to this total. But this could be difficult, because 22 incumbent Democrats – a number that's considerably higher than usual – are not seeking re-election.

Working to their advantage is the fact that roughly 60 Democrats are running unopposed.

Conor Casey, the executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, says Sanders’ presidential campaign has brought a lot of new people into the party.

“Given the excitement this election season, a lot of people are stepping up and eager to run for office, many for the first time ever,” Casey says. “And we're seeing a whole new level of engagement in politics.”

"We're seeing a whole new level of engagement in politics." - Conor Casey, Vermont Democratic Party executive director

The Vermont Progressive Party has 27 House candidates – the most ever, according to Kelly Mangan, the executive director of the party. Mangan also attributes this new interest to the Sanders’ presidential campaign.

“Given everything that's going on in the country, Bernie's race for president and the lack of support that he's gotten from establishment Dems, that they feel in their hearts they are more Progressive than they are Democrat,” Mangan says.

There are 53 Republicans in the House, and Milton Rep. Don Turner, the House Minority leader, was hoping to field 100 candidates this year. But he says he's going to fall short of that goal. It's now likely there will be roughly 88 GOP candidates.

In the 2014 election, House Republicans picked up eight seats. Turner would be pleased if that happens again this year.

"But if we could retain the 53, pick up six, eight, 10 more seats, we're moving in the right direction and restoring some balance in Montpelier, which is ultimately my goal,” Turner says.

"If we could retain the 53, pick up six, eight, 10 more seats, we're moving in the right direction and restoring some balance in Montpelier, which is ultimately my goal." - House Minority Leader Don Turner

This year, most of the 27 Progressive House candidates are running in the Democratic primary. If they win the Democratic nomination, they will then be endorsed by the Progressive Party and can run under both party labels.

Turner is outraged by this development.

“I think it's a fraud to the voters when some Progressives are not willing to tell the voters who they really are,” he says. “And that's very concerning as we move forward to the general election." 

Progressive executive director Mangan says there's nothing wrong with Progressive candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. And she says it improves their chances of winning in November, particularly in some of those open Democratic seats.

"Given that sort of unique situation this coming election, it certainly is a good strategy for people who are running as Progressives to run in the Democratic primary,” Mangan says.

Meanwhile, Democratic executive director Conor Casey has no problem with Progressive candidates seeking the Democratic nomination.

“Anybody who wants to run as a Democrat, we would welcome it,” he says. “There certainly seems to be a bit of strategy on the Progressive side with running in Democratic primaries, but … I think we've seen at the national level with Senator Sanders running as a Democrat that there's an opportunity for the party to have a bit of a new face." 

This same strategy is being used by long time Progressive lawmaker David Zuckerman in his bid to be elected lieutenant governor. Zuckerman is one of three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for this post.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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