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After Win In Primary, Zuckerman Faces Incumbent Battle-Tested By COVID-19

A man holding a phone to his ear.
Peter Hirschfeld
Democratic gubernatorial nominee and current Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman receives a concession call from Democratic challenger Rebecca Holcombe Tuesday night.

David Zuckerman cleared the first big hurdle Tuesday in his bid to become Vermont’s next governor. But now he faces a much taller task in the general election: He has to convince voters to oust a Republican incumbent who’s won high marks for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Around 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, after the Associated Press called Vermont’s Democratic gubernatorial election for Zuckerman, the candidate and his campaign team celebrated the months of hard work they put into the win.

More from VPR: Liveblog For Vermont's 2020 Primary Election

It didn’t take long, however, for Zuckerman to turn his attention to the next phase of his electoral journey. And when a concession call arrived from Zuckerman’s closest competitor, Rebecca Holcombe, he was already talking general-election strategy with his former rival.

“I do think it’s quite possible to beat him,” Zuckerman told Holcombe. “And I look forward to maybe talking with you in the next few days about some of the ideas you brought to the table, as well as some tactics you might have to explore that we could talk about together and see what opportunities there are to work together and make it happen.”

"Certainly I wouldn't run against Gov. Scott right now ... I think he has a very solid lock on the governorship." — Former Democratic candidate for governor Christine Hallquist

With his 10-point win in Tuesday’s primary, Zuckerman proved he has strong support from Vermont’s Democratic base. But the Progressive/Democrat now has to convince a much wider swath of Vermonters to vote out their Republican incumbent.

Ted Kohn, a professor of political science at Norwich University, said Zuckerman, who’s sacrificing his lieutenant governor’s job to vie for the top spot, will need all the help he can get.

“The scope of the challenge is near insurmountable,” Kohn said.

Near insurmountable, Kohn said, because according to a poll commissioned by VPR and Vermont PBS, incumbent Gov. Phil Scott has nearly universal support for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

With COVID-19 at the forefront of voters’ minds this election cycle, Kohn said it’s hard to imagine they’d switch horses mid-race.

“I just think Vermont voters are going to find that anathema,” he said. “Why would you switch leaders at a time you’ve shown that you’ve got faith in the current executive in Vermont?”

Scott’s conservative supporters certainly think his handling of COVID-19 will provide a path to reelection.

A super PAC funded by the Republican Governors Association released an ad on Monday that features none other than Zuckerman and Holcombe praising Scott’s coronavirus response.

More from VPR: July 2020 VPR-Vermont PBS Poll: Big Support For Gov. Scott, Black Lives Matter And Masks

The RGA will have plenty of other tape to pull from for future ads. During an appearance on VPR’s All Things Considered earlier this summer, Christine Hallquist, Scott’s Democratic rival in the 2018 campaign, lauded Scott’s coronavirus response.

“I think Vermont should be proud of how the governor and the state is handling this,” Hallquist said. “I’m proud of how the state of Vermont is handling this, so I just can’t say enough good things about what the governor is doing.”

And Hallquist, wholost to Scott by 15 points in 2018, said she isn’t too optimistic about Democrats’ chances to reclaim the governor’s office this November.

“Certainly I wouldn’t run against Gov. Scott right now,” Hallquist told VPR’s Henry Epp. “I think he has a very solid lock on the governorship.”

Zuckerman isn’t ready to concede. And he said Scott’s high marks on COVID-19 aren’t necessarily a proxy for how voters feel about his performance as governor.

“The question is, ‘Is that approval for the overall situation we’re in,’” Zuckerman said Tuesday.

Zuckerman said he thinks Scott’s positions on fiscal policy, the environment and social issues are at odds with the majority of the Vermont electorate.

“Is there approval for vetoing the minimum wage that if he hadn’t done so, would have meant many of our essential workers would have over $1,000 more in their pocket right now?” Zuckerman asked. “Is there approval for a state that’s not really taking on the climate crisis or the racial injustice that’s happening all over the state?”

"If we have the double whammy of spikes in coronavirus in the schools and schools needing to close and parents needing to stay home ... I think absolutely it could be a game changer. It could be that October surprise." — Ted Kohn, Norwich University political science professor

While voters may be at odds with Scott on some issues, Kohn said that so long as the pandemic remains an integral part of voters’ lives, it will also drive their decisions at the ballot box.

However Kohn also said that presents a potential liability for Scott, because just as COVID-19 poses a volatile threat to public health, it could also upend political perceptions overnight.

“If we have the double whammy of spikes in coronavirus in the schools and schools needing to close and parents needing to stay home … I think absolutely it could be a game changer,” Kohn said. “It could be that October surprise.”

More from VPR: State Unveils Updated Health Guidance For In-Person Learning At Public Schools

Zuckerman is already urging voters to take a fresh look at Scott's handling of the pandemic.

On Wednesday morning, less than 12 hours after his victory in the primary, Zuckerman suggested Scott is jeopardizing the health of teachers and students by rushing to reopen public schools.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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