An editorial written by Deb Lee Ricker of Barre

The upcoming election cycle may be one of the most interesting, and important, of my lifetime — ushered in by a 2014 election that saw the one of the closest gubernatorial elections in Vermont’s history.

The 2014 election also saw the first Republican increases in the Legislature in almost 15 years. The events in state government since that time seem to foreshadow a 2016 election cycle that could be historic.

After edging out a razor-thin victory in his quest for a third term as Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin is damaged politically. After all, he was the head of the national Democratic Governors Association, a politically far-left leader in a deep blue state that hadn’t unseated an incumbent governor since the 1960s.

He had set fundraising records — spending many days raking in cash from all over the country for his campaign — and seemed to be cruising toward re-election without a single bump in the road.

Then — with only weeks to go until the election — his own internal polling showed him losing ground to his Republican challenger. He dumped nearly a million dollars into his campaign — blanketing the state with television and radio ads. It was a last-ditch effort to avoid a humiliating defeat against a Republican challenger running a grass-roots, door-to-door campaign with far less money.

As we all know now, Gov. Shumlin eked out a narrow plurality and was able to hold enough Democrats in the Legislature together to solidify a victory. But the Shumlin political brand was irreparably damaged, not only by the outcome of the election, but also by his unsuccessful management of state government and a general disconnect from middle-class, working Vermonters.

Immediately following the election Peter Shumlin held press conferences saying he had “gotten the message” from Vermonters and was willing to chart a course in a new direction. Soon after, he dumped his radical government-run health care plans — much to the disappointment of his most ardent far-left political supporters.

But his lack of attention to — and his inability to innovate — Vermont’s economy continues to dog him and hurt Vermonters. Vermont’s economy is simply not growing, and Vermonters remain thirsty for new and better paying jobs. Gov. Shumlin’s response is a “hands-off” approach, hoping that a potential uptick in the national economy will carry over to Vermont — before it’s too late. That now seems unlikely.

He faces a $112 million budget deficit created entirely by the policies he and his majority in the Legislature have passed. Most notably, they knowingly and willingly spent more money than the state was taking in for five straight fiscal years.

They did their best to raise taxes to cover their spending, but the growth in expenses still far exceeds revenues. And agencies and departments throughout state government continue to be mismanaged by political appointees — many of them former Democrat legislators — who are not competent or qualified managers or leaders.

Vermonters have connected the dots because they’re paying the price for all of this. A recent poll by VTdigger.org and the Castleton Polling Institute revealed — for the first time since he took office — more Vermonters disapprove of Gov. Shumlin’s performance than approve.

All of these factors have combined, in a type of perfect storm, to enliven Democrats who see a very real chance at defeating him in a 2016 Democratic primary. Further, Vermont’s Progressive Party — equally infuriated by the lack of consistency in his policies — is motivated to run a candidate of their own in 2016.

Because of these clear and real challenges to a potential 2016 re-election campaign, it now seems probable that Shumlin will not — indeed cannot — run for re-election and have any realistic chance at winning. He is who he is, and Vermonters have lost interest in what he is selling. Peter Shumlin is a lame-duck governor.

That realization creates a new dynamic in Montpelier and puts the 2016 election into a whole new light. Who will step up from the Democrats’ side? What viable candidate does the Progressive Party have to run for Vermont’s highest seat? Which Republican will decide that this is the right time to make a run for governor?

And how will these new political opportunities impact the current legislative process in Montpelier? Allegiance to, and support of, the proposals and priorities of a lame duck governor will have less priority in the minds of those who may want to replace him. Political positioning by the most likely candidates has probably already started and may become more apparent and brash even before this legislative year ends in May.

The political dynamics in Vermont may never have been in more turmoil than they are right now. That is another consequence of Peter Shumlin’s failing policies.

With a lame-duck governor and a broad field of potential candidates working to position themselves for future campaigns, this could be one of our state’s most memorable election cycles. With Vermont’s economy stuck in neutral and the state getting less affordable by the day, it is certainly going to be one of the most important ever.