As all political insiders knew, this year’s election in Vermont wasn’t going to be a big deal. Nothing would alter the basic landscape of Vermont politics.
After all, everybody knew who would win: President Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch, Gov. Peter Shumlin. Democrats all, or in Sanders’ case, a de facto Democrat. Secretary of State Jim Condos – a Democrat – would not even be challenged. Attorney General Bill Sorrell would be, but mostly in the Democratic primary, and having survived that, his re-election is all but guaranteed.
Republicans would not be frozen out. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott was going to win, and so perhaps was the GOP candidate for auditor, Sen. Vincent Illuzzi of Orleans and Essex counties, who is opposing Democrat Doug Hoffer. But that would hardly ruffle the dominance of the Democrats, who were also on their way to maintaining – perhaps even expanding – their ample majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
In Vermont, as in most of the rest of the country, the center-right has all but disappeared. That’s a big deal. So is the de facto replacement of a major party by one reclusive person.
No big deal, said the political insiders.
Who were wrong again.
This election is a very big deal indeed. Not because those predictions were wrong. They were right. What makes this Vermont election a very big deal is both what it has revealed and what it has initiated, or what has been inserted into it.
The two are related. The revelation is that the once-dominant Vermont Republican Party is … well, not quite dead, but much diminished and much altered. The institution which governed the state for much of its history now has barely enough power to govern itself. It has almost no money. It has no paid staff (a lone volunteer mans the party office, though the “manning” is being done by a woman). Whatever it may have to say does not seem to appeal to most Vermonters.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. When a party abandons the space it once occupied, something will enter it. In this case, the new entrant is called Vermonters First.
That’s a super PAC, a relatively new species which evolved thanks to two 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decisions – Citizens United v. FEC and Speechnow.org v. FEC – which allowed political action committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support candidates as long as the committees do not coordinate their activities with the candidates or political parties.
As of Oct. 15, Vermonters First had raised $700,000 and spent most of it on television and radio commercials and mailings to support Republican causes in general, Republican state treasurer candidate Wendy Wilton, and several Republicans running for the Legislature. Almost all that money came from one person, a wealthy and somewhat reclusive Burlington woman named Lenore Broughton, who in just a few months has made herself the most influential Republican in the state.
When Republicans dominated Vermont politics, they “owned the center.” Now the Democrats do.
If not quite unique, Broughton’s role is most unusual. According to Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, the only comparable donor in the country seems to be Shaw Chen, who has contributed the entire budget of a super PAC called America Shining, which is supporting the congressional candidacy of Jay Chen (presumably a relative), the Democrat opposing Republican Rep. Ed Royce.
Actually, Vermonters First did not occupy precisely the same space abandoned by Vermont’s Republican Party. Its space was the center-right. Vermonters First’s space is the far right.
Meaning that in Vermont, as in most of the rest of the country, the center-right has all but disappeared. That’s a big deal. So is the de facto replacement of a major party by one reclusive person.
As University of Vermont political science professor Garrison Nelson noted, when the Republican Party dominated Vermont, it was “never a hard core right party.” Not only did a great many moderate Republicans live in the state, Nelson said, but back in the days when the real contest was in the GOP primary, many of the hopelessly outnumbered Democrats would “cross over” and “vote for the most acceptable Republican,” who would then easily win the general election.
That explains why Vermont elected centrist Republicans such as Sens. George Aiken, Robert Stafford, and Jim Jeffords, as well as Govs. Deane Davis and Richard Snelling.
In those days, Nelson said, it was the Republicans who “owned the center.” Now, he said, the Democrats do. The “urban expatriates” who started arriving in the 1960s and 1970s (and by now their children) may be less left-of-center than they were then. But they remain left of right.
“Ideologues do not thrive in cold weather,” Nelson said. “You need your neighbors.”
With Democrats controlling the center, Vermont’s moderate Republicans of yore have become independents or Democrats, leaving the Republican Party to the “movement conservatives,” who are too few to elect many candidates. That’s why the party’s organization is moribund. That’s why most of the ideological conservative candidates, Randy Brock for governor or Jack McMullen for attorney general, have little chance.
“I’m more worried about the long-term impact of these messages that they’re [Vermonters First and Broughton] pushing.” ~Nick Charyk
But because the party organization effectively does not exist, Broughton and Vermonters First filled the vacuum, and are using the most potent weapon in politics – money – to try to elect Wilton (and, at first, Illuzzi, who rejected the super PAC’s help).
The big question is: Will it work? Will the more than $192,000 Vermonters First has spent on television commercials and mailings elect Wilton, conservative Republican though she is?
To be sure, Wilton has other strengths. She’s a livelier campaigner than incumbent Democrat Beth Pearce, who was appointed to the job, and has never run for office. But as a candidate, Wilton has actually raised less money than Pearce. And as a conservative Republican, she’d be the longest of shots without the ads and mailings paid for by Vermonters First.
And that $192,000 understates the help she’s gotten from the super PAC, which has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Vermont Democrats and their policies, possibly plowing more fertile ground for all Republicans.
It has also targeted a few specific legislative races, but these would be seem not to be a clear indicator of its clout. Most of those races are competitive, anyway, so Republican victories could not be as plainly attributed to the efforts of Vermonters First.
In the Northeast Kingdom, for instance, the group has mailed brochures and bought newspaper advertising for Republican Senate candidate Bob Lewis. But Lewis is a popular member of the House and he is running to replace Illuzzi, also a Republican. Should he win, it would be hard for Vermonters First to claim credit, or for Democrats to blame it for their loss. Only a major Republican pick-up – something like four senators or eight to 10 House seats – might be attributable to Vermonters First.
Right now, the Democrats and their supporters (including a couple of Super PACs, but with far less to spend) can’t afford an effective response.
So the real test of Vermonters First’s clout will be the Wilton-Pearce battle. Democrats who say that have seen internal polls (no one is taking a public poll) say Pearce is ahead. They don’t say how far ahead.
Nick Charyk, who is coordinating the campaigns of Democratic House candidates, said he was “not horribly worried about” those candidates being beaten because of the efforts of Vermonters First.
“I’m more worried about the long-term impact of these messages that they’re pushing,” he said. Calling the super PAC’s ads “definitely false,” Charyk noted that if a campaign “says a lie enough times,” some people will believe it unless the other side can counter it. Right now, the Democrats and their supporters (including a couple of super PACs, but with far less to spend) can’t afford an effective response.
Whether the Vermonters first ads are dishonest is of course open to debate. But at least one – claiming Democrats plan to extend the sales tax to services such as haircuts and legal advice – seems at best to be a stretch. Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith did muse on the subject earlier this year. But it never got past the musing stage, and even the musing would have combined extending the tax with lowering the sales tax rate.
Besides, broadening a tax’s base while lowering its rates is standard Republican policy. Or, more accurately, standard centrist Republican policy.
Centrist Republicanism is not quite dead. Phil Scott qualifies. Illuzzi, the other Republican who might win statewide, is downright liberal on some issues. Political fortunes tend to be cyclical, and these Republicans could form the basis of a GOP revival one day, if Democrats make some mistakes.
No doubt they will. Vermont should open 2013 with a Democratic administration and another overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. This promises dominance, but perhaps also division. On many issues, the political center in the state is now dominated by one man – Gov. (and no doubt soon to be Gov.-elect) Peter Shumlin. The more potent opposition to many of his proposals is less likely to come from the frail GOP than from House and Senate Democrats to his left. An interesting prospect to contemplate.