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Candidates For Lieutenant Governor Look Across Political Aisle For Votes In Tight Race

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Kyle Blair
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Vermont PBS
The VPR-Vermont PBS poll found that nearly 25% of the state's voters haven't decided who they'll vote for in the race for lieutenant governor.

The latest VPR-Vermont-PBS Poll shows Democrat Molly Gray and Republican Scott Milne statistically tied for an open seat for lieutenant governor, which has emerged as Vermont's most hotly contested race of the 2020 election cycle.

Full September VPR-Vermont PBS 2020 Poll Results

At a time of extreme political polarization nationally, the two candidates are tacking toward the center in their bids for statewide office. And both Milne and Gray are trying to ride a purple wave to victory on Election Day.

On a recent sunny morning outside the Unitarian Universalist Church in downtown Burlington, Milne made small talk with Chittenden County Sen. Debbie Ingram before their joint press conference for reporters.

Ingram, a Democrat, and Milne, a Republican, have only gotten to know each other over the past two weeks or so. But Ingram said even though they disagree on issues like a $15 minimum wage, and mandatory paid family and medical leave, she’s grown to appreciate his candidacy.

“And I have decided to vote for Scott Milne for lieutenant governor, and I encourage all Vermonters to do the same,” Ingram said.

More from VPR: Republican Lieutenant Governor Primary Race 2020: Scott Milne

It’s precisely the sort of endorsement Milne is looking for right now as he tries to broaden his appeal beyond the conservative base that voted for him in the Republican primary.

And while Milne will appear on the ballot with an "R" next to his name, he’s making a hard sell this fall to Vermonters who tend to vote for Democrats.

“I believe the things that I stand for are bipartisan,” Milne said. “The things that I’ve stood for my whole life are bipartisan.”

Milne said he’s “progressive” on social issues. And he’s also taken steps to distance himself from the national Republican Party by becoming an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump.

a man and woman stand in masks talking to each other
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Scott Milne and Debbie Ingram chat before a joint press conference in Burlington on Monday.

Rich Clark, a professor of political science at Castleton University, says Republicans like Gov. Phil Scott have demonstrated that this centrist formula can work.

“I think moderation does do well, generally,” Clark said.

As Milne tries to chip away at his opponent’s natural base however, Democrat Gray is holding forums in more traditionally conservative areas like St. Albans City, where she addressed a small crowd of locals earlier this week that turned out to hear her speak at a downtown park.

“These community forums are about bringing Vermonters together across party lines,” Gray told the crowd.

More from VPR: Democratic Lieutenant Governor Primary Race 2020: Molly Gray

Gray said the Vermonters she’s spoken to during this campaign are dealing with the same challenges, no matter their partisan affiliation.

“It’s equal access to broadband. It’s access to childcare for working parents. It’s workforce development, so that we can get our graduates into good-paying jobs,” Gray said in an interview with VPR. “The issues we are facing today are not party issues, they’re not political issues so much as they are issues that are facing Vermonters.”

And Gray said she welcomes the support of more conservative Vermonters.

“If the primary is an indication of anything, we received something like 700 write-ins on the Republican primary ticket,” Gray said.

A woman in a jacket stands in a park with campaign signs in the background
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Molly Gray talks to prospective voters at a forum in Taylor Park in St. Albans Tuesday.

Those write-in votes for Gray on Republican primary ballots came from voters like Laura Sibilia.

“I definitely was among them,” Sibilia said. “I had a number of write-ins on my Republican primary ballot.”

Sibilia is an Independent state representative from Dover who, like many Vermonters, isn’t afraid to split her ticket in statewide elections.

Sibilia said she may not agree with Gray on everything. But she said issues aren’t always a deciding factor in elections.

“I’m never going to completely align with any politician,” Sibilia said. “But what I am looking for is character, experience. It is what is the knowledge that you bring to the job.”

And Gray, Sibilia said, exudes the “character” and “decency” she’s looking for in her next lieutenant governor.

More from VPR: Vermont's Universal Mail-In Voting Has Campaigns Rethinking Outreach

The newest VPR-Vermont-PBS poll found Gray winning 35% of the vote, and Milne taking 31%. Figure in the poll’s 4% margin of error, and the race is a statistical tie.

But Rich Clark, the Castleton University professor who oversaw the poll, says the big takeaway from the survey is the number of people who are still undecided.

“People just haven’t tuned in yet,” Clark said. “It’s nearly a quarter of all voters who say, ‘I have no idea.’”

Milne and Gray will spend the coming weeks offering their ideas on why voters should choose them.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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A green and blue logo that says "VPR - Vermont PBS 2020 Polls"

From Sept. 3 to Sept. 15, the VPR - Vermont PBS 2020 Poll asked hundreds of Vermonters how they felt about political candidates, a COVID-19 vaccine, retail marijuana and other issues.  Explore the full results here.

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