BRATTLEBORO—It may seem like the stuff of fiction, but 50 years ago, before the interstate and internet brought Ben & Jerry and Burlington’s Dealer.com, Vermont was such a Republican stronghold, it supported then-President Richard Nixon’s reelection by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
“State residents voted true to tradition to give President Nixon an overwhelming victory against Democratic challenger George McGovern,” The Burlington Free Press, then the state’s largest print news outlet, reported on its front page of Nov. 8, 1972.
Vermonters also elected GOP candidates to every state office on the ballot but one. A Democrat shockingly defied the odds after declaring a last-minute bid when everyone else was on vacation just three months earlier.
“In what may have been the biggest political upset in Vermont history,” the Free Press reported alongside its Nixon story, “Democrat Thomas Salmon was elected governor.”
Current-day candidates who announced their 2022 runs last December may wonder how anyone could join a race on the afternoon of an August filing deadline and, within a matter of weeks, become the sole Democrat to survive a Republican landslide.
Salmon, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, remembers.
‘The chances ... now appear nil’
Vermont had made national news a decade earlier in 1962 when the now-late Philip Hoff became the first Democrat to win popular election as governor since the founding of the Republican Party in 1854.
But the GOP had a vise-grip on the rest of the ballot, held two-thirds of all seats in the Legislature, and took back the executive chamber when the now-deceased insurance executive Deane Davis won after Hoff stepped down in 1968.
Vermont Democrats entered the 1972 presidential year with liberals favoring McGovern and centrists split between U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The Democrats were so divided that they couldn’t field a full slate of aspirants to run for state office.
“The reason that we can’t get candidates this year is that people don’t want to get caught in the struggle,” Hoff told reporters at the time. “The right kind of Democrat could have a good chance for the governorship this year, but we have yet to see him.”
Politicos and the press didn’t view women as credible contenders a half-century ago (although Madeleine Kunin would lay the foundation for her historic 1984 gubernatorial victory by winning a seat in the Legislature in 1972).
And so, everyone limited their speculation to men.
Take the Chittenden County state’s attorney, a relative unknown named Patrick Leahy. Would he consider it?
“Awfully unlikely,” replied Leahy, who would run for U.S. Senate two years later.
Former Gov. Hoff?
“Umpteenth Time,” a Free Press headline replied, “Hoff Uninterested.”
The then–state Sen. Charles Delaney, D-Chittenden/Grand Isle, said he’d seize the challenge, only to rescind the offer upon realizing his party’s lack of cohesion and cash.
“The chances for Democratic Party success in Vermont this election year now appear nil,” journalist Howard Coffin wrote in a June 16, 1972, story for the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus. “With election day less than five months away, the signs point to a resounding Republican triumph.”
‘That very night I made up my mind’
The Democratic Party still didn’t have a gubernatorial candidate in July 1972 when state leaders flew to Miami for the presidential convention that nominated McGovern, a U.S. senator from South Dakota campaigning for an immediate end to the Vietnam War.
Thomas P. Salmon was a delegate. Born in the Midwest and raised in Massachusetts, the Boston College Law School graduate moved to Rockingham in 1958 to work as an attorney before winning election as a state representative in 1964, 1966, and 1968.
Salmon capped his legislative tenure as House minority leader. But his political career hit a wall in 1970 when he lost a race for attorney general by 17 points to incumbent Jim Jeffords, the now-late maverick Republican who’d go on to serve in the U.S. House and Senate before his seismic 2001 decision to leave the GOP.
In 1972, Jeffords decided to run for governor in that fall’s GOP primary. Salmon had every reason not to want to face him again.
Then he felt the heat of the Miami convention.
“I listened to the leadership of the Democratic Party committed to tilting at windmills against what seemed to be the almost-certain reelection of President Nixon,” Salmon recalled in a 1989 PBS interview with journalist Chris Graff. “That very night I made up my mind I was going to make the effort despite the odds.”
Salmon racked up headlines upon returning home.
“Vermont Democrats Enthusiastically Support Salmon,” the Rutland Herald declared on its front page.
That was the good news. The headline of an accompanying story — “But Poll Downgrades His Chances” — offered the bad, noting that Salmon was favored by no more than 18 percent of those surveyed.
Prior to 2010, party primary elections took place in September, which is why Salmon could wait until hours before the Aug. 2, 1972, deadline to place his name on the ballot.
“I run to give our people a choice between the policies of the past and the promise of the future,” he said in an announcement missed by many vacationing Vermonters.
Reporters expressed skepticism that “the last-minute candidate” could win.
“The odds are shortening,” Salmon replied, “and there could be a whale of a big surprise.”
Everyone else remained unconvinced.
“Most Democratic leaders conceded that Salmon’s chances of nailing down the state’s top job are quite dim,” the Rutland Herald and Times Argus reported the day after his announcement.
‘Looks like there’s an upset in the making’
That bleak view continued even when Salmon averted a replay of his 1970 race against Jeffords. The attorney general lost the GOP’s 1972 gubernatorial primary to Gov. Davis’ preferred successor, the late Chittenden County businessman Luther “Fred” Hackett.
That set up a three-way contest between a Republican, a Democrat, and an unknown flag-bearer for the Liberty Union (now the Green Mountain Peace and Justice) Party.(The latter candidate’s name: current U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.)
An early poll showed Hackett “far ahead” of the rest of the field. But Salmon supporters, finding Republicans who favored the maverick Jeffords upset with their party hierarchy’s hand-picked choice, advertised the Democrat with the slogan “Men Can Beat Machines.”
“We agreed that there was no chance of our winning the election unless the campaign stood for something,” Salmon said in his 1989 PBS interview. “Namely, address[ing] real issues that people in Vermont cared about.”
Salmon proposed to support the average Vermonter by reforming the property tax and restricting unplanned development. Hackett called for repealing the state’s new litter-decreasing bottle-deposit law, while a Rutland County representative to the Republican National Committee, Roland Seward, told reporters, “What are we saving the environment for, the animals?”
In an age before personal computers and cellphones, voters weren’t wired into surveys and social media speculation. Vermont Public Radio had yet to exist, and Burlington television stations weren’t yet broadcasting in much of the southern third of the state.
Who’d win? Who knew?
On election night, Hackett and some 200 GOP supporters gathered at what’s now the Capitol Plaza Hotel in downtown Montpelier. Salmon stayed home in Bellows Falls — the better to watch his 9-year-old son, Thomas M. Salmon (who would grow up to serve as state auditor), join a dozen friends in breaking a garage window during an impromptu football game.
The first results reported were equally shattering: Hackett was ahead of Salmon, 72–18.
Then, a traditionally Republican ward in St. Albans went for Salmon by two votes.
And Plymouth, birthplace of the late GOP President Calvin Coolidge, favored the Democrat.
And the capital of Montpelier, which gave its hometown Gov. Davis a 1,000-vote victory in the previous election, went for Salmon 2,146-1,581.
At 10:20 p.m., CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite took to the air to announce, “It looks like there’s an upset in the making in Vermont.”
‘A friend asked me the other day if it was all worth it’
The next day’s newspapers confirmed it.
“Salmon Upset Victor,” the Free Press wrote on a front page that included an unusual editorial of congratulations.
“Salmon accepted a challenge which several other Democrats had turned down,” the editorial said. “He then accomplished what almost all observers saw as a virtual impossibility.”
The Rutland Herald and Times-Argus reported that supporters took to the interstate to travel to Salmon’s hometown.
“Tuesday may have been the biggest day in Bellows Falls since the place was discovered,” wrote Coffin, the same journalist who had noted just that summer that Democratic chances “appear nil.”
Fellow reporter Mavis Doyle summed up the win: “Salmon put together a winning combination of four elements in his campaign — the image of an underdog fighting ‘the machine,’ an appeal to the pocketbook on taxes and electric power, the artistry of a trial lawyer’s appearance before a jury, and disaffection among Republicans bruised in September’s primary.”
Salmon ended up delivering on his promise to reform the property tax in ways still used today. Serving two terms, he lost a 1976 U.S. Senate bid against incumbent Republican Robert Stafford, the now-late namesake of the Stafford federal guaranteed student loan program.
Salmon went on to serve as chair of the board of Green Mountain Power and president of the University of Vermont.
This year, in advance of his 90th birthday, he moved to Brattleboro’s Pine Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation.
A visit on the 50th anniversary of his gubernatorial announcement found Salmon quiet as he listened to a televised Red Sox baseball pre-game show. But share black-and-white photos from 1972, and he slowly but surely named names.
“A friend asked me the other day if it was all worth it,” Salmon said in his 1977 gubernatorial farewell address. “Wasn’t I owed more than I received with the energy crisis, Watergate, inflation, recession, natural disasters, no money, no snow, a tax revolt, and the anxiety of our people over government’s capacity to respond to their needs?”
“My answer was this,” he said. “I came to this state in 1958 with barely enough money in my pocket to pay for an overnight room. In 14 short years I became governor.”
“The people of Vermont owe me nothing,” Salmon continued. “I owe them everything for the privilege of serving two terms in the highest office Vermont can confer on one of its citizens.”
Back at the nursing home, the Red Sox broadcasters talked color as Salmon’s eyes lingered on the black-and-white photos. His silent yet spirited gaze said everything.
Fifty years later, he still remembers.