The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wait, Vermont’s governor hasn’t clinched reelection? Credit a GOP wave and fringe candidates.

Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) (Glenn Russell/The Burlington Free Press via AP)

There were few political observers outside Vermont who even knew the name of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin's Republican challenger heading into Tuesday. But with more than 90 percent of the vote tallied, that Republican, Scott Milne, is less than two percentage points behind him.

Since neither candidate is on pace to win a majority, according to the Associated Press tally, it will be up to the legislature to decide who wins the race, assuming Milne does not concede and Shumlin holds his lead. With 95 percent of the vote tallied, Shumlin led Milne 46.6 percent to 45.2 percent.

Headed into Election Day, Democrats were in clear control of the legislature — which means that when push comes to shove, Shumlin is likely to survive if he holds his lead. Still, his surprisingly tough race appears to be a reflection of both a GOP wave that swept across the country and the marginal but nonetheless significant success of fringe candidates who receive widespread publicity in televised debates.

Republicans easily won control of the Senate on Tuesday, scored big victories in governor's races and were well-positioned to expand their House majority. They also experienced some unexpected successes — like in Vermont. Neither the Republican Governors Association nor the Democratic Governors Association — which Shumlin chairs — ran TV ads in the state. National political observers expected Shumlin to easily win reelection.

Also complicating Shumlin's night was a slate of gadfly candidates who collectively were on pace to claim about 8 percent of the vote.

The Fix's Jaime Fuller captured one of the like-nothing-else-you've-seen debates thusly:

Not that anyone can remember what Shumlin or his Republican challenger Scott Milne — both of whom sort of look like the small-town fathers of a network drama that got canceled after five episodes — had to say. Anyone who tuned in was instantly blinded by the beards and sequins dominating the screen.
The captivating Independent and third-party candidates who also took part in the debate — they include a guy who has run in every election in Vermont for the past 44 years, a woman who founded "a consulting group for hempcrete construction and other hemp-related products" and a woman who is also running for Congress (this happens more than you'd think in Vermont) — were far more interesting.

Here's a photo:

The AP recently provided some history of gubernatorial elections that have gone to the legislature. Shumlin is no stranger to the possibility:

Twenty-three previous elections for governor have gone to the Legislature, which nearly always gives the election to the candidate who won the most votes, even if he or she was shy of the 50 percent mark, and even if he or she is of a party different from the legislative majority. There have been three exceptions, the last one in 1853.
Usually, the candidate who comes in second in the plurality vote concedes to the candidate who comes in first and declines to contest the election in the Legislature, allowing the plurality winner to set up a transition team and build an administration in November and December. This is what happened in 2010, when the current incumbent, Gov. Peter Shumlin, got 49.5 percent of the vote to 47.7 percent for the Republican, then-Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie.