BENNINGTON -- An epic, back-and-forth primary battle among three of the five Democratic candidates for governor had Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin ahead Wednesday evening by 190 votes in unofficial returns tallied by the Associated Press.
Despite all 260 Vermont precincts reporting results by Wednesday morning, the AP did not declare a winner because the race among the top three vote-getters was so tight.
"I don’t think any of us in our wildest dreams imagined that the numbers would be this close together, but it makes sense when you look at the quality of the candidates," Shumlin said in a telephone interview.
Despite his small lead in the unofficial results, Shumlin was claiming victory. "It appears that we’ve gained the most votes, and we’re going to focus on beating Brian Dubie and putting Vermonters back to work," he said. "We’re not going to stop for a second. This is going to be a tough campaign."
How the top three candidates will proceed remains unclear. Shumlin’s closest primary rivals have yet to concede, nor have they ruled out requesting a recount.
Sen. Doug Racine, who trails Shumlin’s 18,183 vote total in the unofficial results by just 190 votes, is planning to wait until the results are certified before deciding what to do, Campaign Manager Amy Shollenberger said.
"We are waiting for the official certification from the secretary of state so we know what the actual count is. We’ve seen some discrepancy in the numbers that have been posted online so we don’t want to make a decision until we know what the official count is," she said.
A recount request is possible, but "not a given," Shollenberger said. In the meantime it’s "inappropriate" for any candidate to begin campaigning for the general election until the primary results are certified, she said.
Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz is just 684 votes behind Shumlin, according to the AP results. Markowitz, like Racine, is well within the 2 percent margin for requesting a recount, but said it was too soon to say if such a request will be made.
"We ran a great race. I’m really proud of it," Markowitz said by phone Wednesday. "Now we’re at a point where we have to see what the certified counts are."
Markowitz’s Campaign Manager Paul Tencher said the campaign believes "every vote has to be counted."
Shumlin said he would "be respectful of whatever decision" is made regarding a recount.
Meanwhile, Google executive and former legislator Matt Dunne, who trails Shumlin by about 3,150 votes in the AP tally, sent an e-mail to supporters Wednesday thanking them for their help and acknowledging he would not win the unprecedented five-way race.
State Sen. Susan Bartlett was far behind, garnering just 5 percent of the vote.
Shumlin, Racine and Markowitz continued to leapfrog each other Tuesday night as election returns slowly trickled in. Shumlin and Racine began to pull slightly ahead of Markowitz as the night dragged on, but returns stopped coming in around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. The AP and other media outlets began reporting complete results around noon Wednesday.
Town clerks across the state were to send their results to the secretary of state’s office Wednesday by overnight mail. State statute requires the primary results to be certified by 10 a.m. on Tuesday. A recount request must be made within 10 days of the election, and a recount cannot begin until five days after all five candidates are notified.
The last recount in a statewide race took place in 2006, when current State Auditor Thomas Salmon requested a recount in his race against former Auditor Randy Brock, whom he trailed by a small margin. Salmon, who was a Democrat at the time but has since switched to the Republican Party, emerged as the victor following the recount.
Vermont Democratic Party spokeswoman Casey Haggas said party officials will not attempt to influence whether Racine or Markowitz pursue a recount. "I don’t believe that we would be discouraging a recount. If a recount has to happen we will welcome that, and we will do everything to make sure that every vote is counted," Haggas said.
Party officials had hoped for a clear primary victor who could quickly pivot from the primary to focusing on Dubie. Haggas said the outcome would have been worse had the primary date not been moved from September to August this year to accommodate overseas military ballots.
"We would have preferred that it would have been a little more clear-cut at this point only because it would have been easier to proceed," she said. "At least this isn’t happening in September."
All five candidates appeared at a "unity rally" in Burlington Wednesday, designed to show support for banding together to beat Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who secured his party’s nod for governor without a primary challenge. The rally was supposed to include a clear-cut Democratic nominee for governor.
Although the party remains without a nominee, Shumlin said the five candidates will still rally around the eventual winner.
"This was the most harmonious discussion about Vermont’s future among the five of us that one could have asked for," Shumlin said. "We’re going to stick together to elect whoever emerges."
The Democratic nominee was scheduled to debate Dubie in a forum sponsored by the AARP on Vermont Public Television today, but the event was postponed until Sept. 15, allowing the Democrats time to determine who has won the nomination.
Contact Neal P. Goswami at email@example.com