MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont’s Legislature will decide the winner of the governor’s race in January after neither candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin held a narrow lead over Republican challenger Scott Milne early Wednesday, but the race was too close to call.
With 90 percent of precincts reporting as of shortly before midnight, Shumlin had won 46.7 percent of the counted votes, according to an Associated Press tally. Milne had 45.2 percent, with five other candidates accounting for the balance.
Under Vermont’s Constitution, if no candidate for governor, lieutenant governor or treasurer gets an outright majority, the election goes to the Legislature. Democrats are expected to maintain control of both houses, but the Legislature nearly always chooses the plurality winner in a gubernatorial election — the last time it didn’t was in 1853.
Milne, who didn’t enter the race until late spring and whose campaign fundraising was dwarfed by Shumlin's, appeared early in the campaign to be a long-shot underdog, as was still reflected in media polling in October.
But Shumlin’s own fortunes appeared to have sagged under the technical problems suffered by the Vermont Health Connect website his administration launched 14 months ago under the Affordable Care Act. He also came under fire from critics who charged he took advantage of a poor and intellectually limited neighbor in a land deal in 2013.
Milne said his near defeat of Shumlin — he might have won if conservative Libertarian Dan Feliciano, the third-place finisher, hadn’t garnered 4.3 percent of the vote — was ‘‘a referendum on Peter Shumlin’s leadership of the state over the past four years.’’ He called on the Democrat to change course if he continues in office.
Speaking to supporters gathered at a Burlington hotel Tuesday night, Shumlin declined to claim victory.
‘‘We’re going to let the votes be counted, get some sleep, and come back tomorrow with all the votes in and continue to move forward,’’ he said.
He added that he heard voters’ dissatisfaction as he campaigned.
‘‘We’re hearing a very clear message, that folks are frustrated, that they’re hurting, that with all the talk of economic recovery that’s going mostly to the top 1 percent, too many Vermonters are still struggling to pay their bills, working too many jobs to make ends meet,’’ the governor said.
Milne’s surprisingly strong performance came in a year when voters appeared to be in a sour mood about government.
‘‘I'm voting against whoever (are) the incumbents, just to shake things up,’’ said Rene Churchill, a 47-year-old computer programmer from Waterbury Center.
Others were sticking with Shumlin. Steve Lobb of Montpelier, who has a business that sells green building materials, said he strongly disagreed with Shumlin’s support of a natural gas pipeline expansion being built in western Vermont. ‘‘I will vote for the governor,’’ he said. ‘‘I like him in every other way.’’
Milne criticized Shumlin as too radical, particularly in the incumbent’s push for a universal, state-backed health care system sometimes referred to as single-payer. Milne and other critics faulted Shumlin for still having failed to come up with a financing plan for the system nearly two years after state law said the administration was supposed to.
In other races, Democrat Peter Welch easily won a fifth term as the state’s lone representative in the U.S. House, turning aside the second challenge in as many elections from Republican Mark Donka.
The Associated Press called the congressional contest for Welch at 8:07 p.m. Other statewide races, except that between Milne and Shumlin, were settled before 9 p.m.
Incumbents were returned easily in other statewide races, including Attorney General Bill Sorrell, Auditor Doug Hoffer, Secretary of State Jim Condos and Treasurer Beth Pearce.
Many Vermont towns expected to have trouble getting half their registered voters to the polls in Tuesday’s elections, but local races generated more interest in some communities.
‘‘I'm concerned about democracy because of the pathetic turnout,’’ said Fred Wilber, 63, owner of the Buch Spieler music and card store in Montpelier. ‘‘It doesn’t work if there’s no turnout.’’
But in some places, hot local races brought higher turnout.
Rutland City Clerk Henry Heck said turnout in the city likely would exceed half of its roughly 10,000 registered voters and might approach 60 percent. He said two draws for voters were hard-fought contests for state’s attorney in Rutland County and for the county’s three seats in the state Senate.
Neither of Vermont’s U.S. senators was up for re-election this year, meaning the state missed out on the sort of buzz created by Republican Scott Brown’s bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in neighboring New Hampshire.