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Milking the Home-Turf Advantage: Personality over Politics in the Vermont Primary

Michael J. Ring

Many candidates and voters view politics as a struggle of ideology. But perhaps just as frequently, politics is about people and personality as well. The recent Republican primary election for one of Vermont's seats in the U.S. Senate is a case study in the political power of personality.

The presumed favorite in this race was Jack McMullen, a highly successful corporate consultant. With years of experience in the business world and plenty of money to finance his campaign, McMullen could seem at first glance to be a prohibitive favorite.

His primary opponent, Fred Tuttle, is pushing 80 years of age. A retired dairy farmer and high school dropout, Tuttle has neither political experience or money. Yet when the ballots were counted, Tuttle had won the support of 55 percent of the state's voting Republicans and earned the right to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Patrick Leahy, in the fall. The story of Tuttle's campaign and his reasons for opposing McMullen form one of the most light-hearted epics of this political cycle dominated by scandal and sleaze.

Remarkably, Tuttle's primary victory is a case of life imitating art. He starred in a local, low-budget film in which he followed a similar path to public life. Man with A Plan, produced by Tuttle's neighbor, sheep farmer John O'Brien, stars Tuttle as a poor farmer who runs for Congress to raise money for his ailing farm and upsets the incumbent. After the movie screened in Vermont, Tuttle earned local celebrity status, winning write-in votes for offices ranging from state treasurer to President.

Enter the consultant McMullen, the darling of the state's Republican establishment for the Senate race. A Bostonian, McMullen switched his voting residence to a Vermont vacation home a year before this election. To many Vermonters he looks and smells like a carpetbagger. Tuttle, who refers to the consultant as a "flat-lander", was encouraged to enter the Senate race by film producer O'Brien and sprung into action.

The primary campaign was a campaign of style, not substance. While McMullen loaned his campaign $227,000, Tuttle told Vermonters he'd only spend $16 on his campaign - the cost to register for the primary. McMullen was well-financed; Tuttle hosted a nickel-a-plate fundraiser at his home (portable toilets rented for the occasion caused him to spend a whopping $200 on his campaign, not the $16 he had initially stated). The farmer hit the campaign trail in blue overalls and a baseball cap simply reading "Fred." Manure spreaders were postered with bumper stickers reading, "Spread Fred." Tuttle was using humor and wit instead of money to send his message that McMullen was not a true Vermonter, and it was connecting with voters.

A debate the week before the election iced the victory for Tuttle. In the Lincoln-Douglas portion of the debate, the dairy farmer did not ask his opponent about tax cuts or crime or welfare. Instead Tuttle opened by asking, "What's a tedder?" The hapless city slicker had no idea it tossed hay for the purpose of drying. McMullen was then asked how many teats were on a cow. He said six; the correct answer is four. In a final test of McMullen's knowledge of the Green Mountain State, he was given by Tuttle a list of Vermont locales and asked to pronounce them. He failed to pronounce Leicester and mangled Calais, saying the French pronunciation "cal-lay" instead of the colloquial "cal-is". The next week Tuttle won the election convincingly, 55 percent to 45 percent.

Tuttle had earlier intimated that he would not campaign against Leahy if he garnered the Republican nomination. However, addressing his earlier hints, he said, "I can't. Everybody wants me now." Tuttle believes Leahy will win, calling the incumbent "a good man."

Needless to say, the state Republican leadership was angered that a presumed joke candidate such as Tuttle would topple a challenger who seriously wished to engage Leahy. Many believed Tuttle's campaign was nothing but a publicity stunt for O'Brien's film, which will be screened on PBS in the fall. Certainly, Tuttle was more concerned with stopping McMullen from getting the nomination then electing a Republican senator.

Their fears, however, are unfounded in that neither Tuttle nor McMullen would have much of a chance at defeating Leahy anyway. A highly respected senator having served four terms, Leahy holds the ranking minority position on the Judiciary committee and is respected by senators on both sides of the aisle. Additionally, Vermont has undergone a political transition and is now a liberal state. Today's Vermont is a far cry from the state that voted for Alfred Landon over Franklin Roosevelt in 1936: today it sends Leahy, a liberal Republican senator, and a socialist representative to Washington. Leahy's seat is safely Democratic, so in political reality the result of this primary was inconsequential.

Although Vermont may have shed its conservative bent, it has retained its small-town atmosphere and attitude. The state is still a slice of rural Americana: trusting of its own, suspicious of outsiders. In most states McMullen would have been an easy winner, but in Vermont money doesn't talk - community roots do.

In this political cycle of hubris, money, and scandal, the tale of a man named Fred is heartwarming to those of us who still believe in the American republic. Fred Tuttle has taught us that there are still times when elections cannot be bought, that a simple, honest man can win the hearts and votes of the people, and that politics can still be practiced with a smile and a laugh, not a scowl and a lawsuit.