For a small state, Vermont has a way of getting noticed. It was the first state to recognize same-sex civil unions and the first to experiment with a single-payer health-care system. Two Vermont politicians—Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov. Howard Dean—have sought the White House in recent years. This year, Vermont Democrats made Christine Hallquist the first transgender candidate for governor in any state.
Ms. Hallquist’s Republican opponent, Gov. Phil Scott, has gone from being one of the nation’s most popular governors to one of its least liked. The reason? Guns. In the days following the February school shootings in Parkland, Fla., a Vermont boy threatened a similar massacre. In April, Mr. Scott signed legislation allowing guns to be taken from people who pose an “extreme risk” of violence and those arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. The law also expanded background checks, banned bump stocks and limited magazine capacity.
Not long ago, this would have been unthinkable in Vermont. As a House candidate in 1990, Mr. Sanders—who even then called himself a “socialist”—managed to snag the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. He understood how rural Vermonters felt about guns. His opponent supported a ban on “assault rifles.” It cost him the election.
Vermont has become more liberal as people from neighboring states settle here. Still, signing that legislation cost Mr. Scott his claim on the affections of old-time Vermonters. He has a background in the construction business, and he raced cars at a dirt track called Thunder Road. He gained popularity by promising to hold the line on taxes and focus on jobs so that children the state had spent lavishly to educate wouldn’t leave once they graduated.
These were familiar themes. The number of students in Vermont’s schools has declined by some 20% since 1997. School spending has gone up 48%, and the ratio of teachers to students is among the lowest in the nation. The bill comes due in the form of property-tax rates that are more than 50% higher than the national average and climbing.
The economy has been anything but dynamic. For years the labor force shrank as young people departed and their parents retired. There are 16,000 fewer people in the workforce than there were in 2009. Employers complain they can’t find qualified people to take jobs. The Scott administration will soon begin offering $10,000 payments to telecommuters who move to Vermont. It’s generous, but it may not be enough if the Legislature keeps raising taxes.
A state-government shutdown was averted this summer when Mr. Scott opted not to veto a bill raising taxes. The Democratic-controlled Legislature insisted on a tax hike even though Vermont had a $55 million budget surplus for 2018. Were it not for the damage to his favorability ratings from the gun legislation, Mr. Scott might have had the political capital to stand up to lawmakers on taxes.
Vermont governors serve two-year terms, and no incumbent has been defeated for re-election since 1962. But Mr. Scott was challenged from the right in the Republican primary. His opponent’s campaign was fueled by hostility to the gun bill and he got more than 30% of the vote with turnout exceeding expectations. Mr. Scott himself said he was surprised his opponent’s share of the vote wasn’t higher.
So now Mr. Scott is running against a transgender candidate promising free college tuition, universal health care, paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage. Ms. Hallquist was equivocal when Mr. Scott pressed her in a debate on how she planned to pay for all of it. Perhaps, she said, the state could halve what it spends on its prison population. As for the possibility of a payroll tax, she said: “I’m not afraid of having a tax to be civilized and do those things but we’ll figure ways to fund things in whatever the best way possible is, but that is a collaborative decision. That’s why the governor should be working collaboratively with the Legislature to figure out how to do the right thing.”
The rest of the campaign promises to be similarly tedious. Though Mr. Scott has been wounded, he is generally expected to win. But, then, these haven’t been good times for expectations in American politics.
Nor, particularly, for Vermont, which would like to pay people to come and enjoy its special “quality of life,” but where the malaise of the heartland manifests itself in the usual, depressing ways. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014 nearly 5% of women who gave birth in Vermont hospitals had opioid use disorder—the highest, by far, in America, with the national average at 0.65%.
That's not a first to be proud of.
Mr. Norman is a writer living in Vermont.