Graff: In statewide races the August primary can be more important than November

by Chris Graff

New ratings by the Cook Political Report confirm Vermont’s status as the most Democratic state in the nation.

That fact is why – for the statewide races at least - the upcoming Democratic primary election is far more important than November’s General Election.

The Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voter Index uses the past two presidential elections to determine the partisan leanings of states and congressional districts.

Louis Jacobson, senior author of the Almanac of American Politics, explains that a Cook PVI score of D+2 means a state performed about two points more Democratic than the nation as a whole. A score of R+4 means the state or district performed about four points more Republican.

“Vermont has the highest Democratic rating – D+16 – of any state, edging out Massachusetts (D+15), Maryland and Hawaii (both D+14) and California (D+13),” says Jacobson.

The rating shouldn’t be a surprise: Exit polls have long rated Vermont as the most liberal of the states and Vermont gave Joe Biden his best showing of any state in 2020. He won 66% of the tally.

But the rating does place a bright spotlight on a political reality: The political demographic translates into a near-certain win for Democratic candidates at the statewide level.

That hasn’t always been the case: For a century – from the 1850s to the 1950s – Vermont was the most Republican state in the nation. For those 100 years winning the GOP primary was a sure bet for winning office.

Now the opposite is true.

The only exception is the office of governor. Without fail since 1962 it has alternated between Republicans and Democrats.

Although Democrats have dominated state offices for most of the past 20 years, this is the first election in which open seats for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House have been all but determined before the General Election.

The last time a U.S. Senate seat was open – in 2006 – then-U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders faced a strong challenge from Republican Rich Tarrant, although Sanders ended up with 65 percent of the vote. The last time the U.S. House seat was open – also in 2006 – Democrat Peter Welch and Republican Martha Rainville battled throughout the fall, with Welch winning 53 percent in November.

This year Welch is expected to easily win the Senate seat. The winner of the Democratic primary for the U.S. House – either Becca Balint or Molly Gray – is expected to easily win the congressional seat.

When retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, first ran for the Senate in 1974 he did so as an underdog. In his 1974 election and his 1980 re-election Leahy failed to even gain 50 percent of the vote. Leahy remains the only Democrat to have held a Senate seat from Vermont.

This election year is very unusual: Of the eight statewide offices six are up for grabs. Only the offices of governor and auditor have incumbents seeking re-election.

The U.S. Senate and U.S. House seats and the offices of lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state, and attorney general are to be decided in this year’s elections.

And Democrats are favored to win all of those races, again making the August 9 primary a critical election.

What that means, though, is that the outcomes are determined by a smaller number of people than if the November elections were truly contested.

In the past 10 years the total turnout in Vermont’s primaries has ranged from a low of roughly 40,000 to a high of roughly 170,000. Turnout in the Democratic primaries has ranged from 21,700 in 2014 to 109,365 in 2020.

Turnout in general elections is multiples of the primary. In 2020, 370,968 voters cast ballots in the November elections.

The smaller number makes it harder for campaigns. It is difficult to identify supporters when the pool is so small.

That’s especially so because of the state’s open primary. The state does not have party registration and so voters are free to cast ballots in whichever primary they wish. Each voter is handed three ballots – Republican, Democratic and Progressive – and they mark one and discard the others. It is the voter’s decision alone which party primary they will vote in.

The smaller turnout also makes polling unreliable. It is nearly impossible to obtain a sample that is representative of the actual primary election day voters.

Primaries can be close: In 2010 fewer than 200 votes separated Peter Shumlin and Doug Racine in the Democratic primary for governor, out of 74,000 ballots cast.

So vote! Vote in August as if it is November.

Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of Vermont Public's Vermont This Week, and commentator for Vermont Business Magazine, is recently retired as vice president for communications at National Life Group. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation.