MONTPELIER -- This year's race for lieutenant governor is down to three contenders.

Progressive and publicly financed Dean Corren is taking on incumbent Republican Phil Scott. Liberty Union candidate Marina Brown is also running.

Democrat John Bauer dropped out of the race Thursday just hours before the deadline to file paperwork to appear on the ballot. He said his campaign hadn't secured enough public support to qualify for public financing, as he had planned. He declined to disclose the amount he had raised to date.

Vermont's public financing laws for the lieutenant governor race require at least $17,500 to be raised from no fewer than 750 individual contributions of no more than $50 each. (For gubernatorial candidates, the limits change to $35,000 from 1,500 qualified individual contributions, still capped at $50.)

With Bauer out, the smaller field will showcase a match between single-payer health care and economic development - the issues driving Corren's and Scott's respective campaign platforms.

Corren was a four-term state representative in the 1990s and a former aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. He's now employed as an energy scientist working on underwater hydropower for a firm based out of New York. Corren is running with health care at the forefront of his campaign.

"We've put this off for a good 20 years since we first started talking about a comprehensive health care plan in the '90s. So it's time we did it," Corren said Thursday morning after hand-delivering his paperwork to Secretary of State Jim Condos. "And having a lieutenant governor pushing in the same direction as the governor will help with that."

Scott said he'll continue to ring a bell for the issues he's been pushing for the past four years in that office. He served in the Senate from 2001 to 2010.

"I will prioritize the growth of our economy," Scott said. "We have a crisis of affordability in Vermont.

John Bauer. (VTDigger photo)
John Bauer. (VTDigger photo)
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Bauer noted Thursday afternoon how closely his and Corren's political positions are aligned. He's publicly endorsed his would-be opponent.

"There's no harm in getting out of the race," Bauer said. "I think getting out of the race makes it possible for someone with like values (to compete)."

Gov. Peter Shumlin said he spoke with Bauer shortly after his fellow Democrat withdrew, a spokesperson said.

"The governor respects John's decision and knows it was a difficult one to make," Shumlin's news secretary, Sue Allen, said by email.

Bauer's last-minute withdrawal

Bauer admitted missing his goal was personally disappointing. But, he said, he feels his short campaign was successful nonetheless on several points - namely raising awareness of public campaign financing and seeing single-payer health care at the forefront of the debate.

In a news release announcing his decision, Bauer said his campaign "would have been manageable had we as a party come together to support the goal of public financing."

Vermont Democratic Party communications director Ben Sarle said the party supports public financing and supported Bauer. He noted the party typically does not involve itself in campaigns leading up to primaries, because it would not want to endorse one member over another.

Another candidate could have filed right up to the last minute, Sarle said, and there even may be a local filing that's not registered at the Secretary of State's office yet - though he acknowledged Bauer was the only known Democratic candidate collecting signatures.

"There wasn't officially not another candidate," Sarle said. "If we were starting to support someone before the deadline and someone came up it wouldn't have worked."

He said the party supports single-payer "in every way shape or form."

Sarle stopped short, however, of offering an endorsement of the Progressive candidate who's made it his central issue.

Tess Taylor is a former state representative who stepped down this year to become executive director of the single-payer advocacy group VTCURE.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. (Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger)
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. (Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger)
 The group is organizing support for single-payer advocates in key political races around the state. She said she's waiting to see any last-minute filings for the seat before setting her organization's strategy on the lieutenant governor's chair.

"I'm excited that there is somebody that is strongly behind a universal health care system," Taylor said. "VTCURE, that's all we're about. We're not married to party so much as the issue."

She noted the surprise of upstart congressional candidate David Brat in Virginia last week upset the House majority leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.

"Somebody worked really hard to overtake an established candidate," Taylor said. "It can happen, and it will take some work."

Corren's public financing

Aside from the intrigue of seeing a Republican and Progressive face off for the state's second-highest office, a race between Scott and Corren is of interest as the first test of Vermont's public campaign finance system in a decade.

Corren is the first candidate to qualify for public financing since Progressive Steve Hingtgen ran for the same seat in the 2004 election cycle, according to the Secretary of State's Office.

No candidates applied for public financing in the 2002 cycle.

In the 2000 cycle, incumbent Lt. Gov. Doug Racine (now Secretary of the Agency of Human Services) took public money in his bid to keep that seat.

The same year, now-Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington, took public financing to run against incumbent Gov. Howard Dean. Dean had initially qualified for public financing, but later backed away from that strategy.

Corren said built-in hurdles to public financing are appropriate.

Compared to simple signatures required of conventionally financed candidates, applicants for public financing must raise money, but with no more than 25 percent of contributors coming from any one county. He signed an affidavit swearing by the legitimacy of contributions to his campaign.

Scott said Thursday afternoon that Corren will be a "formidable" opponent, especially now with a "healthy war chest."

According to VTDigger's campaign finance database, Scott raised $191,316.01 in the 2011-2012 election cycle, of which he spent $129,192.20.

He'll set his own fundraising goal this year to match Corren's automatic $200,000, Scott said.

As a publicly financed candidate, Corren will get grants from a special fund within the Secretary of State's Office that bring his purse up to $200,000: one-quarter of that for the primary, and the rest for the general election.

Within 10 days of each filing deadline, he'll get a check for the difference between the amount he's entitled to spend and the amount he raised in qualifying contributions.

In the event of a shortfall in the fund, candidates would get less money.

Scott said he is philosophically opposed to public financing because he doesn't want to take money from people who may not support him.

"I started thinking about what could be done with $200,000," Scott said. He suggested the money could be better spent hiring three or four more case managers at the Department for Children and Families, or filling about 5,000 potholes.

"There are other ways to spend taxpayer money," Scott said.

Public campaign money comes from fees paid to the secretary of state, not from the state's General Fund, director of administrative services Marlene Betit said Thursday. In the event no candidates qualify for public financing in a given year, the surplus from that special fund is diverted to the General Fund.

The Vermont Legislature created a public campaign finance system in 1998, but money is only available for the gubernatorial and lieutenant governor races.