BRATTLEBORO—Vermont voters made history on Aug. 14, as Christine Hallquist of Hyde Park won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Hallquist, the former CEO of the Vermont Electric Co-op, became the nation’s first openly transgender woman to win the gubernatorial nomination for a major political party.
She will now face Republican incumbent Phil Scott in the general election on Nov. 6.
“I am so proud to be the face of the Democratic Party tonight,” said Hallquist to a cheering crowd that jammed into the Skinny Pancake restaurant in Burlington for her victory party. “Tonight, we made history.”
Hallquist was facing James Ehlers of Winooski, Brenda Siegel of Newfane, Ethan Sonneborn of Bristol, and a write-in candidate, state Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans.
With 99 percent of districts reporting election results at press time, Hallquist had earned 48.26 percent of the vote.
Ehlers and Siegel were virtually tied at 22.1 and 21.4 percent, respectively, and Sonneborn, at 14 years old, pulled in almost 8.2 percent.
Hallquist praised her opponents for running honorable campaigns.
“We showed the nation what democracy looks like,” she said.
Despite speculation that Phil Scott would lose many votes due to signing gun-control legislation earlier this year, the incumbent Republican governor easily turned aside a primary challenge by Keith Stern of Springfield, a business owner who framed the race on his website as a fight against “a swollen, bloated state government.”
At press time, 24,206 voters had given Scott 67.5 percent of the vote to Stern’s 11,634 votes from 32.4 percent of Republican ballots.
In the lieutenant governor’s race, incumbent David Zuckerman ran unopposed, as did Republican challenger Don Turner Jr. of Milton.
Better turnout than expected
Turnout was expected to be light for the primary, but voters showed up in numbers that exceeded recent trends.
According to unofficial figures from the office of Secretary of State Jim Condos, approximately 50,000 cast a Democratic ballot for the primary election, as did approximately 35,000 who voted in the Republican contest.
Traditionally, off-year primaries attract fewer voters than turn out for presidential-year elections. According to data from the Vermont Secretary of State’s office, only 9 percent of voters — 17,000 in the Republican primary and 22,000 in the Democratic primary — cast ballots in 2014.
However, having a primary in a presidential year doesn’t guarantee a big turnout. In 2016, 11.5 percent of voters, about 46,000 in all, cast ballots.
One potential cause is that presidential primaries are held on Town Meeting Day, which gave voters already engaged in local issues a second reason to engage in the process. Another is that Vermont party primaries used to be held on the second Tuesday in September, but since 2010, they have been held on the second Tuesday in August, when many voters are away or disengaged.
A protest candidate with a strategy
While Windham County saw three contested primary races [see story this issue], there was only token opposition in the statewide races.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch easily won the Democratic nomination for their offices, as did State Treasurer Beth Pearce, State Auditor Doug Hoffer, Secretary of State Jim Condos, and State Attorney General T.J. Donovan.
The interesting thing, however, was that all six faced the same candidate.
Vermont is unusual that candidates can run for multiple offices, and H. Brooke Paige took advantage by running in the Republican primary for U.S. House and Senate, treasurer, auditor, secretary of state, and attorney general.
Paige, a perennial Republican candidate who ran and lost races for both auditor and governor in 2014 and 2016, has a reason for this approach.
He told Vermont Public Radio in June that the multi-office run was both a protest of Vermont’s open-primary system and a way of calling attention to the lack of candidate recruitment by the GOP.
By running for six offices, Paige ensured that Democrats who take Republican ballots would not be able to write in Democratic candidates where the GOP failed to field a candidate.
Welch originally faced two Democratic candidates — Dr. Dan Frelich of West Windsor and Ben Mitchell of Westminster — but Mitchell dropped out of the race during a VPR debate earlier this month.
Both Frelich and Mitchell vigorously criticized Welch for taking corporate contributions for his campaign.
Paige ran against Ayna Tynio of Charleston for the Republican nomination.
Incumbent Bernie Sanders was opposed by Folasade Adeluola for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
Paige faced three other candidates for the Republican nomination — Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente of San Diego, Calif., Jasdeep Pannu of Essex, and Lawrence Zupan of Manchester.