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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Milne Mounts GOP Gubernatorial Challenge As Slate For 2014 Elections Goes Final

For months now, the one question dominating the 2014 election cycle was, ‘Will Vermont Republicans have a candidate for governor?’

The answer finally arrived Thursday morning, when Republican Scott Milne announced his challenge to incumbent Democrat Peter Shumlin.

“I think there’s a lot of people that feel like I do, that are paying attention, that Vermont is either headed in the wrong direction, or least not headed in the right direction,” Milne said in an interview Thursday.

"I think there's a lot of people that feel like I do, that are paying attention, that Vermont is either headed in the wrong direction, or least not headed in the right direction." - Scott Milne, GOP gubernatorial candidate

Milne's entry into the race was among several major political announcements that rolled in Thursday as candidates for public office scrambled to beat the filing deadline to get on the November ballots.

For a full candidate listing, click here.

While Republicans got a new candidate for governor – two in fact, counting the little-known Steve Berry, who also filed a petition – House Democrats learned they’ll get their speaker back. Morristown Rep. Shap Smith announced he’ll seek a fourth terms as speaker, saying he wants to be a part of a legislative biennium that will include major votes on health care and education reforms.

Milne, president and owner of Milne Travel, is a political neophyte whose lone brush with public office came during a failed campaign for the Vermont House in 2006. Milne enters the race as an admitted underdog, and faces a two-term incumbent with a powerful campaign apparatus and a more than $1 million war chest.

But Milne says Shumlin’s failure to address the issues facing Vermont taxpayers has left him vulnerable to defeat.

“I think what’s on everybody’s list of top two things that should be addressed – property taxes, education and health care funding – didn’t get addressed,” Milne said.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for the Shumlin campaign said the state’s 3.4 percent unemployment rate – second lowest in the nation – reflects the soundness of the governor's economic policies. The spokesperson said Shumlin won’t begin debating Milne until after Labor Day.

Two other candidates, Berry and Emily Peyton, have filed petitions to get on the ballot for the Republican gubernatorial primary. David Sunderland, the chairman of the Vermont GOP, has already said the party would disavow Peyton’s candidacy if she became the party’s nominee. Sunderland said the party hasn’t decided yet whether it will endorse Milne before the late-August primary.

As for Shap Smith, lawmakers, lobbyists and administration officials had been waiting with bated breath since May for word of his plans.

House leadership during the next biennium will play an outsized role on major decisions on single-payer financing and education funding reform. And with no obvious heir apparent for the speakership, uncertainty over Smith’s plans had become the biggest question mark facing the policy makers that will attempt to push through a health care financing bill that Gov. Peter Shumlin has said will be the “heaviest political lift” in state history.

That speculation ended when Smith filed his candidate petition with the Morristown Town Clerk shortly after the municipal office opened at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. Smith said in an interview at the town office that the weeks-long decision making process involved conversations with his family members, and with his colleagues at the Burlington law office, Dinse, Knapp and McAndrew.

“I think this next year is going to be one that is a really pivotal one for the state of Vermont in the education, education finance, health care and health care finance areas,” Smith said. “And I think it’s going to be a really tough year, but I think it could be one that lays the foundation for a really successful future.”

Peter Sterling, a veteran Statehouse lobbyist and executive director of Vermont Leads, an organization that will be pushing for single-payer, said the success of the health care reform movement hinged on Smith retaking the speaker’s office next year.

“Passing a $2 billion tax package to finance single-payer is probably going to be one of the hardest votes in recent political memory,” Sterling said. “And to do that with a brand new house speaker seems almost impossible by almost any political calculus.”

In the lieutenant governor’s race, meanwhile, Democrat John Bauer, having failed to meet the threshold needed to qualify for public financing, withdrew Thursday from the race for lieutenant governor.

Bauer said his decision to pull out of the race came “after talking with many leaders of the Democratic Party.”

He did not specify details of those conversations, but did say his candidacy “would have been manageable had we as a party come together to support the goal of public financing.”

“Were I to run, it would require me to spend more time asking for money than having important conversations with Vermonters about the issues,” Bauer said in a written statement. “This, on top of holding down a full-time job and caring for my father, who has developed health issues during the campaign.”

Bauer’s exit clears the field for a one-on-one match-up between incumbent Republican Phil Scott and Progressive Party challenger Dean Corren, who on Wednesday announced that he had cleared the fundraising hurdle - $17,500 from 750 individuals in amounts $50 or less – to qualify for public financing.

Corren will get $50,000 in public money during the primary, and $150,000 during the general election. The $200,000 campaign budget is more than Scott raised in either of his first two election campaigns.

Corren and Bauer shared similar campaign platforms, including support for single-payer health care and more progressive economic policies. But Bauer did not use his withdrawal announcement as occasion to endorse Corren’s candidacy.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to campaign as the Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor,” Bauer said. “And now, Democrats and Vermonters who want to ensure a better, more equitable economy - and want to elect a Lt. Governor who understands the position is not just a well-paid, part-time job - must look elsewhere for their candidate for the office that is a heartbeat away from the governorship.”

Democratic incumbents in the four other statewide offices – State Treasurer Beth Pearce, State Auditor Doug Hoffer, Secretary of State Jim Condos and Attorney General Bill Sorrell – will go without a Republican challenger this year.

Progressive Party candidate Ben Eastwood is running for secretary of state.  

Liberty Union candidates include: Peter Diamondstone for governor; Marina Brown for lieutenant governor; Murray Ngoima for treasurer; Mary Alice Hebert for secretary of state; and Rosemarie Jackowski for attorney general.

Thursday was also the filing deadline for House and Senate candidates, though final numbers won’t be certified until as late as Monday. Republican officials say they expect to field about 75 candidates for the House. A spokesperson for the Vermont Democratic Party says the organization anticipates having between 115 and 120 candidates for the House.

In the Senate, party officials have their eyes on four districts in particular. In Franklin County, where the retirement of incumbent Democrat Don Collins has left an open slot in the two-seat district, Republicans are hoping for a GOP sweep that would lead to a one-seat gain in 2015.  

Incumbent Sen. Norm McAllister and former St. Albans Rep. Dustin Degree head the Republican field in Franklin County. But the late entry to the race of former Franklin County Sen. Sara Kittel has vastly improved Democrats’ odds of retaining Collins’ seat.

In Rutland County, Republicans will look to knock off incumbent Democrat Eldred French, who was appointed to the position when former Sen. Bill Carris resigned his post in 2013. The GOP already lays claim to two of Rutland County’s three Senate seats. And they hope Republican Brian Collamore will help it pick up the third.

Democrats, meanwhile, will have at least two candidates, including French and Bill Barris’ son, Tracy Carris.

In Orange County, Republican Bob Frenier will challenge longtime Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark MacDonald. And in Washington County, Pat McDonald, former chairwoman of the Vermont GOP, is looking to unseat one of the two Democratic incumbents – Sens. Ann Cummings, and Anthony Pollina – in that three-seat district.

In Windham County, the retirement of incumbent Democrat Peter Galbraith has set the stage for an interesting Democratic primary that will include Roger Albee, a former agriculture secretary under Gov. James Douglas who says he formerly self-identified as a liberal Republican. Albee will face a four-way Democratic primary for two spots on the November ballot with incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeannette White and challengers Becca Balint and Joan Bowman.

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