Election preview: Judgement day approaches for attorney general contenders in Vermont

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August 27, 2012

By Maresa Strano

Seven term incumbent Bill Sorrell faces challenger T.J. Donovan in the August 28th primary election

Montpelier, Vermont: There are six state executive positions up for election in Vermont this year: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer and state auditor. Of these six contests, current auditor Thomas Salmon is the only incumbent not seeking re-election.[1]

The only state executive primary field to draw more than one candidate this year in Vermont, the Democratic primary for attorney general between seven-term incumbent Bill Sorrell and Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan has become a battleground contest for the state’s predominantly blue electorate. In theory, the attention is befitting of a race in which a law-oriented official seeks re-election on the heels of a string of high-profile, mostly unsuccessful, lawsuits. But in practice, neither major party in Vermont has obstructed Sorrell’s path to re-election since he assumed the position in 1997. Despite the virtually unavoidable occasion for an attorney general--in over fifteen years of handling complicated cases--to endure the periodic disappointment of his constituency, Sorrell has never had to defend himself, nor his claim to the office, against a formidable challenge until now.

When Donovan emerged in the attorney general primary race this year, he looked more like Sorrell’s protege than his immediate replacement. Sorrell held the title of Chittenden County State's Attorney nearly a decade before Donovan assumed the position; When Donovan ran for re-election 2010, he had Sorrell's endorsement. At the outset, Donovan even referred to running against the veteran officeholder, who holds the record as Vermont's longest serving AG,[2] as an “uphill battle” and insinuated having low expectations for winning the nomination in 2012.[3]

In the months of campaigning that followed, however, Donovan proved to be a bigger threat to Sorrell’s re-election than anticipated, as he gained an over 30% lead in fundraising and scored a host of important union endorsements. His momentum appeared to have peaked when the Vermont Democratic Party State Committee, which endorsed Donovan in May and is allowed to endorse multiple candidates,[4] announced that it would not be so supportive of Sorrell this election.[5] According to some committee voters, losing the endorsement may have resulted from Sorrell's inadequate communication and lobbying efforts with the party prior to the July vote.[5]

Spurred by the snub, Sorrell spent the next month trying to match his challenger's level of vigorous campaigning, touring the state, ringing out every drop of support he could muster from party stalwarts in Vermont like Howard Dean and engaging Donovan in a series of debates. During the final debate, the once mutually respectful Democratic contenders touched only briefly on their respective campaign platforms - Donovan promises to bring much needed change to the office and push harder than Sorrell to induce the legislature to prioritize the crackdown on prescription drugs and Sorrell highlights his consistent performance record of environmental and consumer protection and criminal justice enforcement as well as his superior understanding of the AG's duty to support the legislature - choosing instead to take turns cross-examining each other and closing with accusations of foul play.[6] Donovan accused Sorrell of illegally coordinating with a Super PAC run by the Democratic Attorneys General Association on a $99,000 advertising campaign[7]; Sorrell shot back, accusing Donovan's campaign of requesting absentee ballots be sent to a Brattleboro couple who did not want them in violation of state election laws.[8] So far, no formal complaints or lawsuits have been filed and both Sorrell and Donovan maintain individually that they ran a clean campaign.

The most recent polling data has Sorrell leading Donovan by about 20 points, with 31% of surveyed voters still reporting undecided. Such a high proportion of ambivalence, coupled with the general consensus that the poll's 7% margin of error undermines its impact, indicates that the race could still go to either candidate. As Donovan stated after the poll results were published last week, "I think if people are undecided after 15 years, they're ready for change."[9]

The two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2012 are politically and personally entwined. Their eleventh hour campaign disagreements notwithstanding, they share many of same issue positions, loyalties, and leadership sensibilities, stemming from their similar backgrounds. Both are Chittenden County Irish stock with deep familial connections to Vermont's Democratic party. It has been said that they are practically related: Sorrell took Donovan's Aunt Molly to the junior prom. She was "his first love."[10] Choosing between Sorrell's elder statesman and Donovan's fresh face will not be easy for that large share of Democrats projected as still undecided as they head to the polls tomorrow.

Whomever they choose as their nominee for attorney general on Tuesday will go on to face Burlington businessman Jack McMullen (R) in the fall.

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