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Vermont has weathered the pandemic better than any other state, making Phil Scott a surprising star in Bernie Sanders's backyard.
MONTPELIER, Vt.—For a politician who’s never lost an election, Phil Scott is not much for campaigning. He didn’t formally announce his candidacy last year for a third term as Vermont’s governor until the state filing deadline in May. Scott ran his race, such as it was, out of a small garage on the outskirts of town that he rented to keep his motorcycles. The space had internet but no plumbing, so his two campaign staffers used porta-potties outside. When Scott made occasional visits to the office, he’d reset the mousetraps himself, mostly because his 26-year-old campaign manager refused to do so. During the general election, the governor didn’t run a single television ad.
Not that it mattered. Scott’s bare-bones 2020 campaign was notable only because it delivered to him, a Republican running in America’s bluest state, the largest gubernatorial landslide in the country. Vermont voters handed Joe Biden a wider margin of victory—more than 35 points—than did any other state, but more of them cast their ballots for Scott, who won by 40.
Six months later, Scott is riding even higher. No other state has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than Vermont: Its overall per capita case rate and death rate are the lowest on the U.S. mainland, and it has given at least one vaccine dose to the highest percentage of its population. Vermont’s treasury is flush with money, a testament both to the governor’s fiscal prudence—the state was running a surplus before the pandemic—and to the influence of its congressional delegation in Washington.
Democrats control the state legislature and every other statewide office, but the praise they lavish on Scott’s leadership is unreserved and foreign to the zero-sum brutality of modern politics. “He’s done an absolutely tremendous job on COVID,” Representative Peter Welch, Vermont’s lone member of Congress, told me. Indeed, Democrats have struggled to beat Scott in part because they can’t seem to find a bad thing to say about him. “He is a rational, thoughtful, and caring Republican,” says former Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, the Democrat whom Scott clobbered last year.
How is it possible that a state that sends Bernie Sanders to the Senate every six years has become so enamored with its Republican governor? Scott’s popularity is unusual but not an anomaly: Vermont is now most closely associated politically with environmentalists and the progressivism of Sanders, but before the 1960s, it went more than a century without electing a Democratic governor. Since then, it has essentially alternated between the two parties every few years. Because Sanders runs as an independent, Patrick Leahy remains the only Democrat whom Vermont voters have ever elected to the Senate.
Scott is not the only Republican governing a Democratic stronghold—Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland have also won multiple terms in deep-blue states. Collectively, the trio has shown that at least in some corners of the country, voters will reward Republican politicians who renounce Donald Trump. Scott’s success in Vermont also demonstrates that places still exist where the two parties can govern effectively together. Because of his standing, Scott is surely the only Republican with a chance of winning a Senate seat from Vermont; Leahy, the state’s senior senator, is 81 and hasn’t decided whether to seek another term next year, and Sanders will be 84 when his current term ends in 2024. But that race is one that Scott says he is disinclined to enter. “I don’t have any interest in running for the Senate,” the governor told me. “I’m terribly happy right here in Vermont.”
If few people outside vermont know who Phil Scott is, there’s a good reason: The governor, who is 62, has never appeared on cable news or a national Sunday show, and until I visited him in Montpelier recently, he had never even granted an extensive interview to a national publication. We met at his motorcycle garage turned campaign office. He walked in by himself and was dressed for the rain, in a black Patagonia windbreaker over a white shirt and tie. As a photographer positioned him in front of the bikes, Scott looked back a bit sheepishly at his spokesperson, Jason Maulucci. Just sitting to have his portrait taken by a news photographer, Maulucci explained, was a first too.
Scott is as familiar to Vermonters as he is unfamiliar to everyone else. As a co-owner of a commercial excavation business founded by his uncle, he traveled around the state for years. “I literally shaped a lot of the land in Vermont in different ways,” Scott told me. He also built a following as a champion stock-car racer; until the pandemic, Scott raced annually at the Thunder Road Speedbowl in Barre and is still one of the track’s winningest drivers. Unlike most politicians, he does not dominate a room. When he holds twice-weekly press briefings, he frequently defers to members of his Cabinet, and in our conversation, he spoke just loudly enough that I didn’t have to lean forward to hear him. He is not without vanity, though. During the photo shoot, he insisted on moving his daughter’s motorcycle out of the frame. “It’s such a girly bike,” he explained.
Scott ran and won his first campaign for the state legislature in 2000. Scott’s political origin story—“I was just like everyone else. I was a frustrated business owner”—as well as his socially liberal, fiscally conservative ideology is typical for a Northeast Republican. He has been the only Republican to hold statewide office for the past decade, having served three terms as lieutenant governor before his election to the top job in 2016. (To the irritation of many people in the state, Vermont elects its leaders for just two years at a time.)
The biggest mystery about Scott is why he remains a Republican when the party nationally has moved so far to the right and has bowed so deeply to the whims of a man he can’t stand. No elected Republican in the country—not Baker or Hogan, not any member of Congress—has gone further in repudiating Trump than Scott. He supported both impeachments of the former president, and on Election Day, rather than writing in the name of a GOP luminary, Scott voted for Biden.
I asked Scott why he hadn’t become an independent. “That would probably be the easier path, to be quite honest with you,” he said. “But if you look at the longevity of the Republican Party, there’s a lot to be proud of, from my perspective.” He listed Baker, Hogan, Representative Liz Cheney, and Senator Mitt Romney as leaders that give the party hope, and suggested that to abandon the GOP over Trump would be akin to surrendering the party to him. “We’ll see what happens in the future,” Scott said. “But I have no intention of leaving the Republican Party.”
As governor, Scott has sparred with Democrats over spending through the years, vetoing occasional budgets and bills to mandate paid family leave and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. (It now stands at $11.75 an hour.) The legislature has overridden him a few times, but more often the two sides have come to agreements. Unlike most in his party, he has moved to confront climate change (although not as aggressively as Democrats would like), which threatens the producers of Vermont’s most famous export, maple syrup. In 2018 he signed major gun-control legislation to expand background checks, ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, and raise the legal age to purchase a gun to 21. “We share broad goals and values,” Jill Krowinski, the Democratic speaker of Vermont’s House of Representatives, told me.
Democrats say they have pulled Scott to the left and that the governor has followed the lead of the legislature, not the other way around. Scott disputes this only to a point. Noting that he has never served in or with a majority, he told me, “In some respects, I don’t know any better. So you learn to adapt to the conditions that are there.” His biggest project has been tackling Vermont’s demographic challenges—its population is the third-oldest in the country—and attracting younger people and more businesses to the state. He boasted about holding the line against Democratic proposals for tax increases that, he argued, would drive more people out of Vermont. To make the state more affordable for newcomers, Scott wants to use stimulus funds to construct thousands of new homes.
Despite their differences, however, Democrats express appreciation for Scott’s willingness to stand up to Trump. “He doesn’t fit the national mold of the Republican as it’s come to be known in the era of Trump,” Claire Cummings, the executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, told me, “and for that we can be somewhat grateful.” Cummings’s job is to elect Democrats across the state, yet during our conversation, she seemed conflicted about Scott. When I asked whether she considered him a Republican, she replied, “Are you asking me as a private citizen or as the executive director of the Democratic Party?” Cummings told me she used to live in Maine, a generally blue state that twice elected as governor Paul LePage, a pugilistic precursor to Trump. She certainly prefers Scott, she said, but “yes, we want a Democratic governor going forward.”
Scott has a better relationship with Democrats—and higher approval ratings with them, too—than with the state Republican Party, which is aligned with Trump. One county GOP chair circulated a petition in January calling for him to leave the party. The Republican chair, Deb Billado, would answer questions about the governor only by email. Asked to assess his performance, she replied: “I believe that many of the people in Vermont support Gov. Scott’s performance on the handling of the pandemic.” As for her reaction to Scott’s vote for Biden and his call for Trump’s removal from office, Billado said: “This question is old news and does not require a response.”
One fact that helps explain Vermont’s politics is its size. At less than 650,000, the state’s population is half that of neighboring New Hampshire. Montpelier, the seat of government, is a small town—just 7,500 people live there. Its tininess is a point of pride; I heard multiple people boast that it’s the only state capital without a McDonald’s. The scale means Vermonters get to know their politicians better than do people in other states, and the politicians, across party lines, get to know one another. “You basically know almost everyone,” says Frank Cioffi, a Scott ally who runs a state economic-development organization and served in the administration of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. “If you don’t know them, you’re related to a friend of theirs or someone that they know.” Because of that, Cioffi told me, it’s easy “to figure out who’s not playing well with each other. That’ll only be tolerated for a while.”
The governor served in the legislature with many of the Democrats with whom he now negotiates. The tenor of their disputes is genteel by the standards of national politics—if they can be called disputes at all. During the press conference I attended in Montpelier, Scott used the word shell game to describe one part of the Democrats’ budget proposal. When he had finished, he walked over to an adviser and whispered, “Was that too harsh?”
Inside the headquarters of Vermont’s Agency of Human Services is a conference room frozen in time. Taped to the walls are poster-board-size sheets of white paper filled with numbered lists and bullet points: “Ventilators,” “Testing,” “Child care.” At the top of one of the papers is a date: “3/22/20.”
This was what Mike Smith, the agency’s secretary, described as the state’s “war room” during the pandemic’s early days. With Scott patched in by phone, top officials planned for the surge in COVID-19 cases that had already overwhelmed New York City and Boston and, they feared, was soon to hit Vermont. The team used the conference room for only a few weeks before Scott ordered its members, along with virtually every other office worker in the state, to work remotely. As of early this month, only Smith and a few assistants had returned to the building, and the conference room stood almost exactly as they had left it a year ago.
Ultimately, the crush of cases Vermont was expecting last spring never came. Scott acted quickly to shut down the state, and unlike most other Republican governors, he did not rush to reopen. Vermont reported about 40 cases a day for a short period, but its curve quickly flattened. For long stretches last summer, not a single person in the state died of COVID-19. The case numbers did spike in the winter, but even at their peak, Vermont never had to use the excess capacity it had built in its hospital system. Several weeks ago, Scott unveiled a phased reopening plan tied to vaccination rates, with the goal of removing all restrictions on businesses by July 4. Vermont has inoculated people so quickly, however, that the governor has lifted limits faster than he had initially announced. He also followed the CDC in dropping the state’s mask mandate for vaccinated people earlier this month.
To the extent that Democrats criticize Scott’s leadership, they do so not for the decisions he made but for the credit he’s received for the success of a small, rural state with a relatively homogeneous population. “Vermonters have been social distancing since 1791,” Cummings told me, repeating a joke that’s been going around the state. “It’s not surprising that we did well.” Vermont’s liberal politics and respect for government also gave it an advantage, Garrison Nelson, a professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, told me. “Vermonters are compliant. We’re not New Hampshire, with their ‘live free or die’ bullshit,” he cracked.
Scott and his aides chafe at the suggestion that the state’s success was predictable. For one, Vermont’s older population made it vulnerable to poor outcomes. “It’s not all because of being a rural state,” Scott told me. He pointed to South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana—all sparsely populated rural states that suffered much more. Vermont’s overall death rate of about 40 per 100,000 people is less than a third that of other rural states. The state is sandwiched between New York and Boston—two of the pandemic’s early epicenters—and city dwellers were flooding into Vermont to escape the worst back home. (Demand for houses in the state continues to far outpace supply.)
Protecting its citizens from severe disease and high death rates is probably reward enough, but Vermont is emerging from the pandemic in better fiscal and economic condition than virtually any other state. Its 2.9 percent unemployment rate is tied for lowest in the country, and the state budget has so much money coming its way that some towns are wondering how they’ll spend it all. Scott’s fiscal restraint helped turn a deficit into a surplus before the pandemic, but the credit for Vermont’s recent bounty goes to its three-man congressional delegation that, despite its size, is as powerful as any in the country. Leahy is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sanders heads the Budget Committee. (Welch has amassed seniority during his 14 years in the House as well.) Vermont is receiving $2.7 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act—an amount equal to one-third of the $6.8 billion budget Scott proposed earlier this year. That’s on top of the considerable sums it secured in earlier COVID-relief packages. The result is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to address immediate and long-term challenges, Scott told me. State Senator Dick Mazza, the longest-serving Democrat in Montpelier and a close ally of the governor, told me he’s joked to Welch, a longtime friend: “Stop sending money!”
Scott likes to describe himself as frugal, and he told me he’s “a little concerned” by the overall amount of new federal spending Biden is proposing. But he isn’t telling Congress to shut off the spigot, and more funds might be coming Vermont’s way in an infrastructure package. “We could always spend more money,” he told me. Scott and the legislature have already agreed to invest heavily in expanding broadband, tackling climate change, and constructing new housing. His priority in negotiations with the legislature is to avoid launching new permanent programs that would be left unfunded once federal support goes away.
More money, of course, doesn’t mean fewer fights; Scott might veto the Democratic budget making its way through the legislature (the one he criticized as partially a “shell game”). The lesson of Vermont is not that functional government requires kumbaya or that its model is exportable to Washington, a far more diverse and complicated political arena. But it does suggest that polarization is neither total nor inevitable and that states both red and blue are more ideologically tangled than their coloring on a presidential map would indicate.
Scott is both a contributor to and a beneficiary of Vermont’s political openmindedness. His next steps could test its limits. The governor told me he has not decided whether to seek a fourth term next year. If he does, he’ll start out as a front-runner—the state rarely ousts incumbents. “He can run and win as long as he wants,” Nelson said.
The more daring move would be to run for Senate if Leahy does not. (Scott has said he’d vote for him if the Democrat sought another term.) Scott has dismissed that possibility both for personal and the more obvious political reasons. “To be honest with you, I don’t think Republicans could win,” he told me. Vermonters might elect a moderate Republican as governor, but “they're not going to send a Republican to Washington to tip power to the Republicans.” As for running as an independent, Scott reiterated that he couldn’t see himself leaving the GOP.
Yet Scott isn’t ruling out a Senate run entirely. “You never close the door on anything,” he said. That opening is enough to spark fear among the long line of Democrats who have waited more than a decade for a vacancy in the state’s aging federal delegation. Cioffi told me that just because Scott is known to be calm, “that doesn’t mean there isn’t a bit of gumption to him.” Democrats also know that with Senate control up for grabs, and with the prospect of flipping a seat in deep-blue Vermont so tantalizing, the pressure on Scott to change his mind—from Republicans and his core supporters—is likely to swell. “The Republican Party,” Zuckerman reminded me, “really has nobody else.”
Russell Berman is a staff writer at The Atlantic.