The paperwork is in. Here are (most of) the legislative races to watch

The dome of the Vermont Statehouse. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The deadline to file paperwork to appear on the August 9 primary ballot in Vermont was late last month, and while the Secretary of State’s Office is still finalizing its tally, the battle lines are mostly drawn. 

Roughly a third of all members in both legislative chambers aren’t running for reelection this year. But for all the turnover in Montpelier, one face is likely to remain familiar: Gov. Phil Scott. The popular Republican is running for a fourth term, and while the Democratic Party has embraced anti-poverty activist Brenda Siegel as its presumptive nominee, hers is still widely considered a longshot bid.

Democrats and Republicans are planning accordingly, and much of the parties’ attention this cycle is likely to focus on the Vermont House, the chamber in which Democrats most often fail to override Scott’s frequent vetoes. 

Vermont Republican Party chair Paul Dame said his topline goal is electing 51 Republicans to the House — enough to sustain a veto without help from moderate Democrats or independents. (The party currently holds 46 seats in the 150-member chamber.) 

The Republicans have so far found 80 candidates to run for House, and they are still looking for more. Dame is proud of that number, but he concedes recruitment is tough. Working people who aren’t retired struggle to balance jobs with serving in the part-time Legislature. Plus, antipathy in Vermont to former President Donald Trump, still a national Republican mainstay, has made some candidates increasingly hesitant to run under the GOP banner.

“The last really big year that Republicans had was in 2014,” Dame said. The party lost seats in both the 2016 and 2018 cycles, then began to rebuild in 2020. 

Jim Dandeneau, the newly hired interim executive director of the state Democratic party, meanwhile, believes a 100-seat, veto-proof supermajority is within reach. (Democrats and Progressives together currently hold 99 seats.) 

“We have a lot of really good candidates in a lot of areas where we haven’t had good candidates in the past. And I’m excited,” Dandeneau said.

He’s done it before: Dandeneau led the effort to recruit Democrats to run for the House in 2018, when the party picked up 12 seats to clinch a supermajority that year. They narrowly lost that bloc in 2020.

Both the Democrats and Republicans have flagged Franklin County as a key battleground. Dame says the GOP can turn the purple county red. Dandeneau argues Democrats can make inroads as people from the Burlington area migrate north, seeking more affordable housing.

Republicans are setting their sights on ousting Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans City. If the GOP can pull it off, the upset would also hold symbolic import: McCarthy currently serves in House leadership as the Democratic whip. 

In Vermont’s newly redrawn legislative map, McCarthy is now in a more compact single-member district, which could make it easier for an opponent to knock on doors and persuade voters one-on-one. McCarthy’s challenger will be Franklin County GOP chair Joe Luneau, who has been aggressively organizing for the party.

“Joe’s gonna give (McCarthy) probably the toughest race that he’s ever had,” said Dame.

But Democrats have also recruited candidates to challenge incumbent House Republicans in the county. 

St. Albans Planning Commission vice chair Lauren Dees-Erickson is running against Rep. Casey Toof, R-St. Albans Town, and Bakersfield resident Brenda Churchill, a Statehouse advocate for the LGBTQIA Alliance of Vermont, is challenging Rep. James Gregoire, R-Fairfield. 

“The trick with these House races, especially, is … you’ve got to put yourself in front of people. You’ve got to meet people where they’re at,” said Dandeneau. “And Brenda has been doing that for years.”

And with Sen. Corey Parent, R-Franklin, heading for the exit, the race to replace him is likely to be a competitive one. On the GOP side, Rep. Robert Norris, R-Sheldon, a former county sheriff, is making a bid for the upper chamber. On the other side of the aisle, former Vermont Family Network CEO Pam McCarthy is back on the ballot after an unsuccessful bid in 2018. Jessie Nakuma Palczewski of St. Albans town is also running as a Democrat.

As for the Vermont Progressive Party, executive director Josh Wronski said his organization is mostly focused this cycle on holding its ground. Many high-profile Progressive politicos decided to bow out this year, including Rep. Selene Colburn, P/D-Burlington, who leads the House Progressive Caucus, and Sens. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, and Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden.

“If we come out of this cycle having elected new leaders and maintaining our numbers, that’s kind of a win for us at this point,” Wronski said.

Other races to watch:

  • Democrats and Progressives are set to face off in the Chittenden Central Senate Democratic primary. Only one incumbent, Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, is running for re-election in the new three-seat district. Democrats and Progressives, meanwhile, have each recruited two high-profile candidates for the two open seats. Democrats are putting up Essex Junction President Andrew Brown and Burlington school board chair Martine Gulick; Progressives have recruited Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex and Bernie Sanders staffer Erhard Mahnke.
  • Redistricting is putting two incumbent House Republicans in jeopardy: Rep. Vicki Strong, of Albany, and Rep. Samantha Lefebvre, of Orange. In Vermont’s newly-redrawn map, both are now in single-member districts with less historically conservative electorates. Strong will have perhaps the toughest challenge: the new map pits her against an incumbent Democrat, Rep. Katherine Sims of Craftsbury. Lefebvre’s Democratic opponent, Carl Demrow, is also well-known locally — he currently sits on the Corinth selectboard, and served in the Legislature from 2019-2020. Dame said the party will pay special attention to protecting Strong and Lefebvre. “They’re great examples of good, strong Republican women, and we want to see more women like that in the party,” he said.
  • Vermont Young Republicans chair Sam Douglass is challenging longtime Northeast Kingdom lawmaker Sen. Bobby Starr, D-Essex/Orleans.
  • John Klar, who unsuccessfully challenged Scott for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2020, is running against Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange.
  • Stowe is set to turn blue. Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who held on in an increasingly liberal seat for eight terms in the House, is not running for reelection this cycle, and a Democrat appears poised to claim the seat. Scott Weathers, a nonprofit consultant, was the only person on the ballot in the district as of Thursday.
  • With Rep. Felisha Leffler, R-Enosburg, not running for re-election, former Rep. Cindy Weed, a Progressive/Democrat, is trying to win her old seat back. On the ballot for the Republicans is Allen “Penny” Demar and Zacharia Messier.
  • In the Rutland County Senate race, the departures of Sens. Josh Terenzini, a Republican, and Cheryl Hooker, a Democrat/Progressive, leave two open seats. In addition to incumbent Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, the Republicans have put up Dave Weeks and Poultney farmer and selectboard member Terry Williams. Democrats have recruited local attorney Bridgette Remington and Rutland City alderwoman Anna Tadio.

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