Martha Abbott aims to win suddenly competitive Progressive primary

As the lone candidate for governor on the Progressive Party’s primary ballot, Martha Abbott looked to have the nomination pretty well in hand.

Until last Tuesday, when she, along with the rest of the political community, learned of an under-the-radar write-campaign launched on behalf of anti-big-wind activist Annette Smith.

Abbott is taking the competition in stride.

“I think it’s exciting, because it raises the level of interest in our primary, which is good,” Abbott told the Vermont Press Bureau on Friday. “I do kind of wish they had come to the process earlier and engaged with us on these questions when they were coming up with their strategy for this particular election, but I do think it’s a good thing to have more people engaged.”

But make no mistake, Abbott aims to win.

“I do want to win, and we’re just putting the word out to people that there is a reason to vote in the Progressive primary,” Abbott says.

All eyes next Tuesday will, of course, be on the Democratic primary for attorney general. But the outcome of the Progressive gubernatorial contest will have a more lingering effect on electoral dynamics in November.

A victory for Smith would be a huge win for opponents of mountaintop wind development, a constituency that has proven its ability to organize on a dime and turn out dozens of vocal, attention-grabbing protestors with little advance notice.

With a major-party gubernatorial candidate leading their charge, the single-issue crowd could shake up what has until now been a two-way race between Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and Republican Randy Brock. And if Smith, an articulate advocate who isn’t afraid to throw rhetorical elbows at Shumlin, manages to snag a third podium at high-profile gubernatorial debates, it could complicate the incumbent’s strategy.

Abbott, meanwhile, might well choose to end her candidacy on the same day she wins her party’s nod. Candidates have three days to withdraw before the general-election ballots are printed, and Abbott, who in June said she was running in part to keep a rogue candidate from hijacking the Progressive nomination, said that, if victorious, she’ll make an announcement next Tuesday or Wednesday about whether she’ll continue on into the general.

Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment – in addition to ridgeline wind, her organization has also taken hard stands against issues like chloramine in drinking water and the merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp. – says she has only indirect knowledge of the write-in campaign.

If she were to win the Progressive nomination, she said last week, she’d decide whether or not to run (though she has given organizers of the write-in effort her blessing to launch the campaign).

Abbott says she’s not against ridgeline wind development, but would like to see Vermonters retain control over the development of natural resources, rather than see them co-opted by corporate interests.

So does Smith have a chance? That all depends on how many pro-Abbott Progressives decide to vote in the Democratic attorney general primary – Vermonters can vote in any primary they choose, but can choose only one primary to vote in – and how good the anti-big-wind crowd is at getting out the vote.

If past turnout is any indication, then a win for Smith is well within the realm of possibility. In the 2010 primary, only 533 people voted in the Progressive primary. In 2008, it was 470. You need more signatures than that just to get on the gubernatorial ballot.