A sleepier statewide election season?

Many of Vermont’s top incumbents will not face primary challengers this August — unlike 2022, when historic turnover made for a crowded primary field

MONTPELIER-After a red-hot election cycle two years ago, Vermont is due for a significantly sleepier campaign season, according to unofficial filings with the secretary of state's office.

Major party candidates were due to submit petitions to appear on the Aug. 13 primary election ballot by May 30, though it may take days for the candidate list to be finalized.

In stark contrast to 2022, all of Vermont's statewide incumbents up for reelection are running again this year. And most of them - including Republican Gov. Phil Scott, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) - are facing challenges only from those who are relatively unknown or have lost in the past.

"Even when we have some turnover for governor, I still don't think we're going to see that kind of wholesale turnover ever again," said Vermont Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Dandeneau, in reference to the 2022 election. "That was a very unique circumstance, and the turnover is what made it high-key, right?"

For instance, Sanders is set to face off against Republican Gerald Malloy of Weathersfield come November as he seeks a fourth term in the Senate.

Though he swore off formal party affiliation years ago, Sanders has historically run in the Democratic primary, then declined the party nomination to appear on the November ballot as an independent. He continues to caucus with Democrats in the Senate.

Malloy ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) for an open seat last election cycle, losing to the longtime member of Congress by 40 points.

Balint, who is completing her first term in Congress, did not appear to draw a primary challenger this year, according to filings released by the secretary of state's office on Thursday evening. In the general election, she's set to face Republican Mark Coester of Westminster.

Coester ran for state Senate last election cycle, drawing the Vermont Republican Party's condemnation after flying alt-right and fascist flags in parades throughout the state. Adam Ortiz of Newport City has registered to run against Balint in November as an independent, as he did in 2022, when he won just over 1% of the vote.

The filing deadline for independents is Aug. 8, so others could yet enter this and other races.

According to state elections director Seán Sheehan, as of May 30 the secretary of state's office was still reviewing Balint's filing, along with those of four other candidates, including Attorney General Charity Clark, a Democrat, to ensure they qualify.

In an otherwise tepid election cycle, the race for lieutenant governor appears to be the hottest to emerge, with Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive Democrat, as the only incumbent facing a primary challenger this August.

Also seeking the Democratic nomination is Thomas Renner, the deputy mayor of Winooski and a first-time statewide candidate.

Gregory Thayer, who sought the 2022 Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, is again running for that position. He'll compete with former Democratic state Senator John Rodgers for the GOP nomination. Thayer has said that he attended the "Stop the Steal" protest at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

Scott, Vermont's top-ranking Republican, will not face a primary opponent as he seeks a fifth term. The two Democrats vying to challenge him are Esther Charlestin, an educator and consultant hailing from Middlebury, and ousted Underhill Selectboard member Peter Duval.

Duval unsuccessfully challenged Scott for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2022, then subsequently ran as an independent in the general election, garnering less than 2% of the vote.

While it is not customary for a party to endorse a candidate before a primary, Dandeneau told VTDigger on May 30 that Duval is "not a serious candidate" and that the party will not support him based on his previous actions as a member of the Underhill Selectboard.

Charlestin "is going to be our candidate," Dandeneau said, and the party will support her bid ahead of the Aug. 13 primary.

"It's going to be a really uphill fight for her, and she's going to have to put a lot of resources together in a short period of time," Dandeneau said. "But she's sharp, people really like her, and she has a very magnetic personality. [...] Now that people are paying attention to the campaign, I think that she's going to draw more support than people think."

Also running for governor is independent Eli "Poa" Mutino of Barre City.

The Vermont Progressive Party also put forward a slate of candidates for various statewide offices. But according to the party's chair, Josh Wronski, many of these candidates are placeholders to prevent others from hijacking the party line.

Asked whether any of the party's five statewide candidates will continue onto the November ballot, Wronski said, "probably not," but, "all of them could."

Wronski said those five Progressive candidates were Elijah Bergman for attorney general, Marielle Blais for governor, Linda Gravel for auditor, Zoraya Hightower for lieutenant governor, and Tim Maciel for treasurer.

Wronski said that after the August primary, the party will endorse certain candidates for the general election, several of whom are historically "fusion" candidates, such as Zuckerman and Auditor Doug Hoffer, who are also competing for the Democratic nomination.

State Treasurer Mike Pieciak does not appear to have a Democratic primary opponent. However, he may face a political newcomer in the general election this fall. The Vermont Republican Party recruited Joshua Bechhoefer of Cornwall to run for treasurer.

According to Vermont GOP chair Paul Dame, Bechhoefer works for the Farm Credit Association and got his start in politics through the Vermont Young Republicans.

But first, Bechhoefer will need to secure the Republican nomination. On the primary ballot, he will face perennial candidate H. Brooke Paige, who ran unsuccessfully for four statewide office positions in 2022.

Paige is the only Republican candidate to have stepped up to challenge three of Vermont's six incumbent statewide executive officeholders: Clark, the Democratic attorney general; Hoffer, the Progressive Democratic auditor; and Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas, a Democrat.

Dame told VTDigger that the state Republican Party opted this year to focus its efforts on recruiting down-ballot legislative candidates in hopes of making a dent in Democrats' supermajority in Montpelier. While there were attempts to recruit a slate of statewide candidates, he said, "those efforts were not as successful as we had had hoped."

"We're having the same problem with the other constitutional offices that Democrats have for governor," Dame said. "Everybody knows that Vermonters love their incumbents and the party affiliation doesn't matter as much. And it gets a lot harder to recruit in those conditions."

This News item by Sarah Mearhoff originally appeared in VTDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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