- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont’s 2014 election was a disappointment to Republican Scott Milne, who lost.

It was a disappointment to Democratic incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin, who barely beat the political newcomer and failed to garner the majority needed to keep the election from going to the Legislature.

And it appears to have been a disappointment to the voters, a record low number of whom bothered to show up.

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Now, as Shumlin acknowledged Wednesday, he faces the task of trying to restore the public’s trust in him as he also faces the steepest part of an uphill climb toward his premier policy goal of a universal, publicly funded health care system for Vermont.

“We have faced our share of setbacks in the last couple of years and I know that people are disappointed in how I’ve handled some issues,” Shumlin said Wednesday. “I recognize that I have work to do to regain the confidence of many Vermonters.”

While Shumlin won his second two-year term with nearly 58 percent of the vote in 2012, a year in which Democratic turnout was boosted by President Barack Obama’s position at the top of the ticket, he got 46 percent this year from a record low turnout of 43.7 percent of registered voters.

The two years preceding Tuesday’s vote were marked by the administration’s botched rollout of the Vermont Health Connect health insurance website, Shumlin coming under fire for what critics saw as an ethically questionable land deal with a neighbor, and growing public outrage over rising school costs and property taxes.

Under the state Constitution, failure to win more than 50 percent means the race won’t be formally decided until the Legislature convenes and elects a governor in January. A vote for Shumlin by the Democrat-dominated House and Senate appears assured.

It was the first time since 1986 that an incumbent governor failed to win a majority in a bid for re-election. In that race, liberal Democratic incumbent Gov. Madeleine Kunin saw votes siphoned away by the third-place finisher, left-leaning independent Bernie Sanders.

This time, Shumlin’s skin may have been saved by the third-place finisher. Conservative-leaning Libertarian Dan Feliciano received 4 percent of the vote - four times the margin Shumlin ended up having over Milne.

Political scientists Garrison Nelson of the University of Vermont and Bert Johnson of Middlebury College both said Republicans likely missed an opportunity to pull off the defeat of an incumbent Vermont governor for the first time in more than 50 years.

Johnson pointed to Milne’s late start in June and said Shumlin had a huge fundraising lead over the Republican.

“Did they really miss an opportunity by not running a more aggressive and competent campaign?” he asked.

Nelson said Wednesday that the popular Republican lieutenant governor, Phil Scott, who opted not to challenge Shumlin and easily won re-election “would have buried Peter last night.”

Milne argued that the large share of voters who did not cast ballots for the incumbent is a clear sign a big course correction is needed.

But Shumlin’s allies and fellow backers of his health care vision said they believe he can bounce back.

“Right at the moment it might suggest that it takes a little bit of the wind out of the sails. But you just don’t know what things are going to look like two months from now,” said House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown.

Dr. Deb Richter of the pro-single-payer group Vermont Health Care for All said getting a financing plan for the health overhaul through the Legislature “is going to be difficult, but it was always going to be difficult. … That’s the way it is with any big social change.”

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