MONTPELIER — It’s off to the races.
The slate of candidates for the 2012 elections was finalized Thursday as office seekers rushed to beat the 5 p.m. filing deadline.
The biggest surprise of the day came in the lieutenant governor’s race, where single-payer health care advocate Cassandra Gekas supplied some Democratic opposition to the state’s highest-profile Republican, incumbent Phil Scott. Progressive Marjorie Power is also in the hunt for lieutenant governor.
Republican Vince Illuzzi, meanwhile, staged a morning news conference outside the Secretary of State’s office to make official his run for auditor. And Republican Jack McMullen, best known for losing a U.S. Senate primary to beloved Tunbridge farmer Fred Tuttle, stepped in at the last moment to give the GOP a candidate for attorney general.
Democratic incumbent Beth Pearce faces Republican Wendy Wilton in what will be a closely watched race for state treasurer.
“It’s been a busy day, to say the least,” Secretary of State Jim Condos said late Thursday afternoon. “We’ve had a lot of traffic here over the past two days, and we’ll be here late tonight and tomorrow processing all the petitions.”
Condos, a first-term Democrat, looks to be the lone statewide candidate getting a free ride in the general election. Though GOP officials say they’ll try to find a write-in candidate for secretary of state before the August primaries, no Republican filed to oppose Condos.
Republicans also have a thin slate in the two races for federal offices, where Sen. Bernard Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch will square off against a handful of relative unknowns.
Gov. Peter Shumlin and his presumptive Republican challenger, Randy Brock, will headline the top of the ticket this summer and fall. Progressive Martha Abbott also filed a petition for governor, though she’s said she may withdraw before the general election.
Local races could provide the most suspense this fall as Republicans look to erase Democrats’ near supermajority in the Vermont House and cut into their 22-8 edge in the Senate.
“We’ve got nowhere to go but up — that’s the good part,” Vermont Republican Party Chairman Jack Lindley said Thursday. “I would rather be in a position where nobody expects a whole lot and we come in with a whole lot, and I think that’s what’s going to happen.”
Julia Barnes, newly minted executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, said her organization is taking nothing for granted.
“We’re going to be bringing on field staff as early as July and are having conversations now with field chairs and county chairs across the state,” Barnes said. “We’re going to be starting early and putting a lot of work into what will be a very grass-roots effort in Vermont.”
Democrats have an undeniable early edge. According to campaign finance disclosures filed last June — the last reporting period — the Vermont Democratic Party and its affiliated political action committees had about a 5-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage over Republicans.
For example, the Vermont Democratic Party carried $54,000 into the 2012 cycle, compared with $12,000 for the Vermont GOP.
Barnes said the numbers are only improving.
“We’re having a spectacular year,” she said. “I know Republicans like to pick on us for being financially successful, but it’s not something we’re ashamed of.”
Complicating things for Republicans is that 11 of their 48 House members are leaving their posts, compared with only six or seven Democrats. Rutland Town Republican Jim McNeil was the latest to announce he’ll be stepping down, a loss from which Turner said his party will have to work hard to rebound.
“It’s disappointing when you lose people who are solid and who you can count on and who have solid track records,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner, a Milton Republican. “It really shakes the base.”
Turner said it’s also been a tough sell persuading quality Republican candidates to run.
“It’s a little disappointing because some really good Republican candidates out there we can’t get to run because of time commitments and work and family issues,” he said. “I think we could have had an even stronger team otherwise.”
Still, Turner said he’s optimistic. He said he thought he’d have 96 Republicans running in House races by the filing deadline. He said the party will take a targeted approach, directing its limited resources to areas they can be most competitive.
“We’ve got to go where our strengths are,” he said.
Rutland County, according to Turner, offers a wealth of pickup opportunities. He’s particularly optimistic about the party’s prospects in Rutland City, where three Democrats won their seats by fewer than 100 votes in 2010.
Those seats are held by Reps. Herb Russell, Peg Andrews and the outgoing Gale Courcelle. Larry “Cooper” Cupoli will look to unseat Andrews, while John E. Mattison Jr. will challenge Russell.
Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to steal seats from Republicans and build on the 94-member caucus they’ve seated in the past two legislative sessions. Party insiders are expecting hard-fought races against incumbent Republicans Tom Burditt — facing a challenge from Ken Fredette — and Jim Eckhardt, who will try to fend off Anne Gallivan.
Democrats will field candidates in all but one of the districts being vacated by Republicans.
The Senate, too, will feature dozens of contested races. In Chittenden County, at least 17 candidates — former Burlington Mayor Bob Kiss among them — will vie for six seats. That race includes nine Democrats, three of whom will be culled in the late-August primary.
Senate Democrats will play more defense than offense this year, as high-profile Republicans in Caledonia and Franklin counties look to build Republicans’ numbers. David Dill, former transportation secretary under Gov. James Douglas, is looking to unseat Sen. Jane Kitchel, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
In Franklin County, a GOP stronghold, Republicans are hoping to pick up the seat being vacated by Democrat Sara Kittell.
Republican Mark Donka, independent James “Sam” Desrochers, and Andre LaFramboise of the “VoteKISS” party are challenging Welch for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Republicans John MacGovern and H. Brook Paige will challenge Sanders, along with Cris Ericson of the United States Marijuana Party, Laurel LaFramboise of VoteKISS, and Peter Moss of Peace and Prosperity.
Ericson is also running for governor, as well as Emily Peyton, an independent.
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