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'We Have To Expand Our Outreach': Vt. Democratic Party Chair On Election Results

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Zuckerman lost his election bid by 40 percentage points to Gov. Phil Scott.

How did Vermont’s Democratic Party do in this election?

Democrats in Vermont held onto their wide majorities in the state House and Senate and maintained control of the lieutenant governor's office, electing political newcomer Molly Gray. Democrat Joe Biden also won Vermont by a wide margin.

But in the governor's race, Democrat and Progressive David Zuckerman lost by 40 points to Republican Phil Scott. And Democrats also narrowly lost their supermajority in the House, which could override Scott's vetoes. And notably, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson narrowly lost her race. But that appears headed towards a recount.

To get an assessment of how the party fared this election, VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Bruce Olsson, chair of the Democratic Party.

Henry Epp: So given the results I just outlined, was this election a success for the Democrats in Vermont?

Bruce Olsson: Well, I think it has to be described as a mixed success, because we didn't win the governor's office. That was going to be a really tough battle, tough uphill battle. I think that many Vermonters were very satisfied with Phil Scott's response to the COVID pandemic, and I think they rewarded him by re-electing him.

Were you surprised at all by the margin by which Phil Scott won? Like I said, 40 points above David Zuckerman?

Yes, it was bigger than we anticipated. We thought that we knew it was going to be really tough to beat Phil Scott, but it was a huge margin.

More from VPR: Phil Scott Garners Third Term As Governor In Landslide Win Over Zuckerman

Well, I want to talk about the fundraising in that race a bit. In the last campaign finance report before the election, Zuckerman's campaign reported raising nearly $686,000 over the course of the entire race. And he spent nearly all of that money, but he lost by that wide margin. Do you think that money could have been better used on more down-ballot races where the Democrats also lost a bit of ground?

Well, you know, he was raising that for his campaign. And so I don't think that that was an issue in the down-ballot cases. If we look at the Statehouse, the three seats that we lost, those were districts in which Trump won. And so you think about the polarization of the vote across America, that was also reflected in Vermont. And I think that had an impact on the results of the election.

But do you think Democrats could have done more to direct some of that party fundraising towards those more down-ballot races, particularly in those places that you lost? And could there have been more done to convince voters to split their ticket and vote for local Democrats?

Well, we ran a coordinated campaign, and we also had targeted House races which we brought into that coordinated campaign. Now, in hindsight, I mean, you may look at some places where maybe we should have spent more money, but, you know, this was – I've been working on elections for a long time. I can tell you that this was the most challenging election that I've ever been involved in.

COVID really cramped our ability to go door-to-door, talk face-to-face with voters. We tried to do that through text banking and through phone banking. And we had good success with that. But it's still not the same as talking to somebody one-on-one about the issues that impact them and how we would deal with those issues if elected.

Well, with hindsight on that now, do you think Democrats here in Vermont and in other parts of the country could have done more door-to-door campaigning, taking some precautions around COVID-19, of course, and might that have made a difference?

Well, that's a possibility. You know, I'm not a health expert. And our primary concern is not only the health of our volunteers and our staff that would do the house calling, but also the Vermonters that we'd be talking to. I think maybe we could have done a better job in trying to find a way to talk with them.

I know that some candidates had kind of like a meet-and-greet outside where everyone wore masks, practiced social distancing. The voters were able to have more direct conversations with the candidates. And I think that was an effective tool that they did in order to reach out to the voting public.

Just sticking with the governor's race, are there areas where you think the Zuckerman campaign went wrong or missed the mark just given the margin by which they lost?

Frankly, I don't think anybody that we – whoever we put up this cycle, I think was going to lose to Phil Scott.

So you don't think you had a chance, whoever was going to run for governor.

Correct. I think it was just too steep the hill to climb.

"... we can't be focused just on the urban areas and suburban areas surrounding the cities. We really have to go out and talk to rural Americans. I think that's going to be critical to not just building a broader Democratic base, but also to unifying the country." — Bruce Olsson, Vermont Democratic Party chair

Your party has lost three races to Gov. Phil Scott now in a row. I mean, what specifically around the race for governor do you think you could do differently in the future to potentially have a chance to take that office?

Well, I don't know specifically about the governor's office, but on a whole, I think we have to expand our outreach to rural Vermonters. I think that we need to engage with them and listen to what they say. I think oftentimes there's a real focus just on Chittenden County.

And, you know, I think Molly Gray showed in this last cycle that you can win without coming from Chittenden County, but you have to be willing to go out and talk to people across the state. Now, having said that, I think David Zuckerman made a real attempt to do that, but that the COVID crisis just kind of overwhelmed everything.

This is a criticism I have actually of the Democratic Party nationwide, that we can't be focused just on the urban areas and suburban areas surrounding the cities. We really have to go out and talk to rural Americans. I think that's going to be critical to not just building a broader Democratic base, but also to unifying the country.

Just finally, I want to ask about House Speaker Mitzi Johnson's race, which appears headed toward a recount after she narrowly lost that race. Were you surprised that she fell short on election night?

Well, we always know that her district wasn't red or blue, but really, that's a purple district, and that her margins in the last couple of cycles were pretty narrow. And she knew she had a tough fight.

But she has really been focused this year on, you know, creating an effective response to the COVID crisis in Vermont. I think she and [Senate President] Tim Ashe did it outstanding job in really crafting legislation that provided essential aid to Vermonters, to working families, to businesses that made our response much more effective than it would have been.

A lot of the credit all goes to Phil Scott, but you cannot underestimate the good work that was done in our state Legislature.

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: Speaker's Races Headed To Recount, Scott's Big Win

So given that she was working on that for much of the year, did the party do enough to shore up her support in her district?

Well, you know, we will be asking that question over and over again. You know, there's always – you can look back and say, yes, we should have done more. [Mitzi Johnson] felt comfortable going into Election Day that we had done enough.

And so in many cases, you know, you really have to depend upon the evaluation of the candidate. And if they feel that we need to do more, we will do more. And so I think that when you talk about margin of victory, of what, it was at 18 votes? And when there were literally hundreds of blank ballots in her district? You know, that's a problem. And it could have easily have gone the other way.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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