How Phil Scott Gets Re-Elected In Bernie Sanders’ Vermont

Despite being a reliably blue state, the moderate Republican has garnered a healthy amount of support from both parties.

If Vermont is famous for anything, beyond Ben & Jerry’s and maple syrup, it’s our democratic socialist senator, Bernie Sanders. For decades, he has represented Vermont in a variety of ways — first as mayor of Burlington, then as our lone U.S. Representative, and now as one of our two Senators. As a democratic socialist, Bernie has long been unapologetic in his views. He has championed a single-payer healthcare system his entire career; he has supported a woman’s right to choose since the 70s; he supported a Gay Pride march in Burlington back in 1983. Vermonts have responded to his politics, too. Voters have re-elected Bernie by as much as 40 points election cycle after election cycle.

So how is Phil Scott, a moderate Republican, on his way to winning his third term as the state’s governor?

On the surface, this dichotomy may strike many as odd. After all, the Republican party as a whole has been drifting further to the right since 2010. Now, with Donald Trump as their leader, this brand of “New-England Conservatism” is rare to find.

Yet, Phil Scott takes it in stride. He’s well-liked by many Vermonters of all stripes, from Democrats, to Independents, to Republicans. He’s calm, rational, and even-keeled. While he may not have the brusque charm that Bernie Sanders offers, nor the rugged GOTV style of politics, he has his own benefits: mainly how personable he is.

When he ran against Sue Minter in 2016, he branded himself as, essentially, a libertarian: socially liberal and fiscally conservative. He is pro-choice and believes in climate change (two things he made sure to put on his website). Yet, he also made sure to stress that he would not add any new taxes and he would cut spending when needed.

This moderate approach is one that was appealing to many Vermonters. The state is notorious for having a high standard of living and high taxes. Therefore, many were willing to vote for someone who wasn’t as liberal as they were used to in order to get some much-needed financial relief. He also thoroughly rejected Trumpian conservatism, even admitting he didn’t vote for the president in 2016. All of these things combined earned Scott a wide berth of support, even as polls showed him a few points behind Minter in the week leading up to the election. As such, he won the 2016 gubernatorial election by almost 9 points, with 52% of the vote.

When the time came for his re-election, Scott had made some risky moves. He signed sweeping gun control legislation into law, which banned bump stocks, raised the minimum age to buy a gun, limited magazines to ten rounds, and required background checks for all gun sales. This infuriated his base — Republicans stormed Montpelier, our capital, holding signs that said Traitor and Not My Governor. In addition to that, he affirmed the state’s commitment to resettling refugees — something the national party was virulently against. He signed a bill that allowed adults to possess and consume marijuana, despite still having concerns with the bill (Vermont still does not have a marketplace for people to buy marijuana, something that has drawn the ire of liberals throughout the state). And in 2019, Scott became the first Republican governor in the country to sign into law a sweeping abortion rights bill that denied the State government the ability to deny or interfere with a woman’s right to choose.

These actions earned Scott a lot of goodwill with Vermont Democrats, even while infuriating his own base. Scott was even primaried from the right in 2018 by Keith Stern (though Scott won easily with 66% of the vote). And even with Vermont Democrats making history by nominating the first transgender gubernatorial candidate, Christine Hallquist (who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders), Scott won by 15 points.

Phil Scott is also poised to win his third term as the state’s Governor. While his Lieutenant Governor, David Zuckerman, is running against him (and Zuckerman is well-liked in the state), Scott has maintained the even-keeled, calm presence with which he was elected. In a political time where chaos and rudeness have prevailed nationally, Scott has succeeded by being the opposite: respectful, patient, and thoughtful. He has shown that he is willing to listen to liberals in the state, even if he is uncomfortable with some issues (like marijuana legalization). He has also received a lot of praise, both from within Vermont government and from voters, on how he has handled the coronavirus pandemic.

Even despite his clear disagreements with Bernie Sanders, there seems to be a mutual respect between the two men. When Sanders announced his second presidential bid in February, Scott said he would abide by tradition and appoint an Independent should Sanders have won the presidency. Nothing in Vermont law requires him to do so. Though he admitted that he may not pick someone like Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, he also said he would not pick someone aiming to be Senator beyond the special election — the seat would have been awarded to someone who he viewed as fully independent of both political parties. And despite thoroughly scouring articles from the past four years (and living in Vermont), I have never seen or heard Sanders say anything bad about Scott, besides having political disagreements with him.

Ultimately, the cardinal rule of Vermont politics is authenticity. Vermonters like to be able to see their elected officials around, to be able to walk up to them, shake their hands, and chat. It’s this style of politics that launched Sanders’ career in the first place. It’s this style of politics that Jim Douglas, our Republican governor from 2003 to 2011, excelled at. It’s this style of politics which Phil Scott embraces.

It’s not that Vermonters don’t care about policy — after all, both Christine Hallquist and Sue Minter were closely to Sanders on policy than Scott. Rather, they are willing to elect someone who they view as trustworthy and honest, even if they disagree with that person on certain issues. It’s a surprising approach to politics, one that feels almost arcane in the era of Trumpian conservatism.

I’ve known a lot of people who ask where the old-school Republicans are. Even more have asked whether they can survive post-Tea Party and post-2016. To those people, I present Phil Scott. I don’t agree with him all the time, nor have I voted for him in either election. However, when he’s won I also don’t get worried. I know, at the end of the day, Vermont’s interests are at his heart. And, more importantly, I know if there is enough support around a particular issue, he will listen to its supporters and come up with a compromise.

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Keith LaFountaine

Writer and filmmaker from Vermont. Sometimes, I dabble with politics.