Candidates raise legit jobs questions

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Governing” is a non-partisan magazine based in Washington that focuses on state-level politics and policy. It recently ranked the economies of all 50 states, using a range of indicators measuring employment, state GDP, and the income of state residents. Vermont ranked 25th, in the middle of the pack both nationally and in New England — lower than Massachusetts and New Hampshire, about the same as Maine, and above Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The left-leaning Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier think tank, came to a similar conclusion about Vermont’s economy, issuing a report last week headlined “Vermont’s Job Market Makes Pokey Progress.” The data in the report show that more Vermonters are working today than a year ago. However, Vermont, unlike the nation and the New England region as a whole, still has fewer people working than was the case at the pre-recession peak in 2007.

The reports from “Governing” and the Public Assets Institute demonstrate why Republicans Phil Scott and Randy Brock should be seen as slight favorites to be elected governor and lieutenant governor in November, at the same time Vermont gives substantial majorities to Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Patrick Leahy and Peter Welch.

Vermont Republicans are focusing intently on jobs and the economy in their campaigns this fall. Unlike in previous cycles, when some Republicans emphasized social issues, this year Republicans are talking nearly exclusively about the slow growth of Vermont’s labor force, the stagnation of middle-class incomes since 2010, and the impact of higher health care premiums, property taxes and other fees on affordability for Vermont middle-income households.

Republican candidates argue that, after six years of single-party Democratic control in Montpelier, it is time for a change. While they do recognize that some of Vermont’s economic problems are due to national and international forces that are largely outside state government’s control, they are also asking the voters to give a new leadership group a chance to try out a new set of policies.

For the next few years, the Republicans say, the emphasis in Montpelier should be on making state government more efficient and effective, delivering existing programs better before adding still more responsibilities to state government’s agenda.

Vermont Democrats could well have difficulty refuting this argument. The state’s economic performance over the past six years has not been especially strong. Gov. Shumlin’s relative unpopularity at the end of his term does not make Vermont voters enthusiastic about keeping the Democrats in control. Additionally, the positions of Democratic candidates Sue Minter and David Zuckerman on issues such as wind tower siting and gun control may mean they receive fewer votes from rural areas of Vermont than successful Democratic candidates in past elections.

Phil Scott and Randy Brock have made clear that they do not support Donald Trump, and will not vote for him in November. Scott first spoke out against Trump as far back as December 2015. Scott and Brock have probably inoculated themselves against the damage that Trump could well do to the Republican Party in much of the Northeast.

Voters in other northeastern states that are otherwise strongly Democratic have recently voted for moderate Republican gubernatorial candidates. In Massachusetts and Maryland, voters in 2014 elected Republicans Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan, respectively, to succeed Democratic governors who did not seek re-election. Baker is now the most popular governor in the nation, with an approval rating over 70 percent, and Hogan has a positive rating as well. Both Baker and Hogan have disassociated themselves from Trump and the congressional Republican agenda.

While the election outcome is by no means settled, Vermont voters could decide in November that Phil Scott should join Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan as moderate Republican governors in otherwise strongly Democratic states.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.