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Reporter Debrief: Speaker's Race Headed To Recount, Scott's Big Win

A person stands at a podium.
Josh Kuckens
Times Argus File
Vermont Speaker of the House and Grand Isle Democrat Mitzi Johnson may have lost her seat to Milton Republican Michael Morgan, who she is currently trailing by 18 votes. Johnson has requested a recount.

A record number of Vermonters cast ballots in Tuesday's election, and voters delivered some surprising results: Republican Gov. Phil Scott defeated his well-known Democratic challenger, David Zuckerman, by more than 40 percentage points. And House Speaker Mitzi Johnson may have lost her seat in the Vermont House of Representatives.

To help make sense of what happened last night, VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with fellow reporter Peter Hirschfeld. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Henry Epp: So a lot of people were paying attention to races for president and governor and lieutenant governor yesterday. But late last night, we learned that House Speaker Mitzi Johnson appears to have lost her re-election bid based on unofficial results from her district. What's the status of that race right now?

Peter Hirschfeld: So Mitzi Johnson represents a two-seat district that consists of six towns in the northwestern-most corner of Vermont. And according to unofficial results, the keyword being unofficial here, Johnson is in third place, with just 18 votes separating her from the second-place finisher.

If those results stand, the Speaker will have lost her seat. Mitzi Johnson is a Democrat, of course, but she lives in a district with some relatively conservative towns such as Milton and Alburgh. And Republicans have long been salivating at the prospect of taking out a sitting Speaker, because it would be such a symbolic victory for the party. And it appears right now they may have pulled it off.

One caveat: I spoke with Mitzi Johnson earlier today, and she says she will be asking for a recount. That 18-vote spread between her and the second place finisher, who's a Republican by the name of Michael Morgan, is just 0.16% of all votes cast in that race. So it's not outside the realm of possibility that a recount could fall in her favor.

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

OK, so a really narrow result there. But if that recount does not fall in Johnson's favor, Democrats suddenly have to find a new Speaker for the next legislative biennium. Have you heard any early rumblings about who might be in the running to replace her?

So the phones of Democratic lawmakers are ringing off the hook today, as you can imagine, and chamber leaders are trying to figure out how to proceed. Keep in mind, Henry, we're two months away from the beginning of the legislative session. Democrats did not anticipate having to go through this succession exercise. And it throws a real wrench into what's already a challenging time with the pandemic, with budget issues.

I talked to more than a dozen current and former House members today, and I’ve heard the same three names as possible contenders for the Speaker's role. The names people are putting out there: House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, who lives in Burlington, Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, who chairs the House Committee on Government Operations, and Thetford Rep. Tim Briglin, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Technology.

A woman sits at a desk in the Vermont House chamber.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR file
VPR file
Vermont House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski says it's too early to speculate, but she's one of the people others are considering for Speaker of the House after unofficial results show Milton Republican Michael Morgan defeating current Speaker Mitzi Johnson by 18 votes.

We can cross Briglin off that list right now: I spoke with him a couple hours ago. He says he will not be throwing his hat in the ring. I also talked to House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski. She says she's holding out hope that Mitzi Johnson will win her recount and says it's premature to speculate on whether she'll be signaling any interest in the job. Haven't heard back yet from Sarah Copeland Hanzas, who actually competed against Johnson for the Speaker's role back in 2016.

You know, it's hard to overstate the importance of the Speaker when it comes to how the House of Representatives operates. The person who occupies that seat in January, whoever it is, probably won't dramatically alter the legislative agenda next year. But it could have a substantial impact on the sort of human and interpersonal environment in which they try to move that agenda forward.

So a lot of names in the mix, and potentially some changes there. Pete, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson was not the only incumbent Democrat who fell yesterday. How will the results of the election affect the partisan balance in Montpelier in the Legislature?

So the net gains and losses aren't enormous, Henry. And certainly nothing like we saw in 2018 when Democrats picked up 12 seats in the House. But Republicans appear to have gained three seats, bringing their numbers up to 46 members in the House of Representatives. Democrats appear to have lost three seats, taking their count down to 92.

And that difference on the margins could be significant, because right now, Democrats and Progressives combined have enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto, and they have exercised that override power onmultiple occasionsover the past two years. Beginning in January, this coming January, Democrats and Progressives will dip to 99 seats. That's below the 100-vote threshold needed for an override. And that could influence the legislative dynamic and some really interesting wins.

Well, let's turn to the governor's race now. It was not a huge surprise that Gov. Phil Scott defeated Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman yesterday. VPR and Vermont PBS commissioned a poll back in Septemberthat showed Scott with a strong lead over Zuckerman. But how surprised were you at the margin of Scott's victory yesterday?

I'm not going to lie: I was surprised. I think a lot of people were surprised. And this is a historically lopsided outcome. We haven't seen a margin of victory like this since 1996, when then-Gov. Howard Dean defeated a Republican named John Gropper by nearly 42 percentage points.

And there's data snapshots, Henry, that I think illuminate the height to which Phil Scott's popularity has soared right now. Joe Biden received 242,000 thousand votes in Vermont yesterday. Scott beat that: 247,000 Vermonters voted for Phil Scott. Phil Scott got more votes from Vermonters than the Democratic candidate for president who's trying to unseat Donald Trump. I mean, think about that.

More from VPR: Phil Scott Garners Third Term As Governor In Landslide Win Over Zuckerman

You know, Zuckerman, meanwhile, got fewer votes than Donald Trump: David Zuckerman, Bernie Sanders’ protégé, 99,000 votes compared to 112,000 votes cast for Donald Trump.

And we saw that support for Phil Scott all across the state, even in traditional Democratic strongholds. Of the 275 districts in Vermont. Scott came out on top in 271. And it really just points to how Vermonters feel about their Republican incumbent right now.

Scott has enjoyed a lot of popularity throughout his time in office, but can we attribute this popularity right now even more tohis handling of the coronavirus pandemic over the last few months?

You know, I've been talking to a lot of political observers, people who follow politics in Vermont, who’ve been doing it for years, who know a lot more about this stuff than I do. And the consensus is that Vermont's low case counts are definitely a driving factor behind the outcome we saw yesterday. But they say Phil Scott’s bearing over these past seven months, may be as important as his administration's success in suppressing the transmission of the virus.

People are scared and confused right now. They're facing a lot of uncertainty at the local and national level. And the governor has been this soft and steady voice that people are listening to for four to six hours a week during these COVID media briefings. That voice of sort of calm reassurance is something that people are apparently responding to right now.

I’ll also note, there are a lot of Democrats who say they think David Zuckerman's candidacy is perhaps an indictment of this fusion concept... this Progressive-Democratic fusion, they think that the Vermont electorate, as Phil Scott has demonstrated, may be more hungry for a centrist, moderate type when it comes to who they want in the governor's office.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporters Henry Epp @TheHenryEppand 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.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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