Former Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown delivered one salient message to the Vermont GOP on Friday night: “Have tolerance for other people in the party.”
If factions continue to divide the Republican Party, he said, candidates will not be successful in Vermont or anywhere else in the country.
Brown, in more ways than one, fit the bill for the keynote speaker slot at the Vermont GOP’s spring fundraiser. Although he lost to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in 2012, Brown was the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts since Edward Brooke won in 1972. The moderate Republican won the seat, which belonged to liberal Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, in a 2010 special election after Kennedy died of a brain tumor.
In a liberal state much like Vermont, Brown found a way to win — if only for a short time. Brown says he still has political ambitions, and he is keeping an eye on Washington while he works as a commentator on Fox News and travels the country delivering speeches and promoting his 2011 book, “Against All Odds.”
Brown’s call for GOP unity in Vermont is timely. Republicans here have been fighting over the future of the party, which in 2012 only held onto one statewide seat and lost more ground in the state Legislature where a “super majority” of Democrats continues to dominate. In April, the Vermont Press Bureau’s Peter Hirschfeld highlighted the rift between the ideological chair of the Vermont GOP, Jack Lindley, and moderate Lt. Gov. Phil Scott who is pushing for more centrist positions on issues.
Scott said he and Brown are on the same page.
“I’ve always thought we can disagree with each other, but we need to treat each other with respect and learn how to compromise and agree on what we stand for,” Scott said.
Lindley, who dug in his heels earlier this year, seems to have softened his hardline conservative stance. “His message is real,” Lindley said. “It’s part of what all Republicans are attempting to follow at this point in time.”
Still no one on Friday, not even Brown, had a fix-all solution to the Republican’s fundamental problem: attracting enough liberal to moderate Vermonters and residents of Massachusetts to the party in order to gain a better political foothold.
The $125-a-head private reception at the Rutland Holiday Inn began with veggies, dip and libations. After small talk and speculations about who might run for governor, the party of nearly 50 moved into the dining room for dinner and Brown’s speech.
Lindley led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance and grace before well-wishers broke into a chorus of “Happy Birthdays” for former Gov. Jim Douglas, who turned 61 on Friday.
At a front and center table, Scott gave Brown a stock car racing lesson. Nearby, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, lobbied his peers to persuade Douglas to run for election in 2014.
“He oozes honesty and integrity,” Mullin said of Douglas, as he leisurely sipped on a gin and tonic.
Noticeably absent from the fundraiser were the three Republican candidates who ran for statewide office in 2012 and lost: Wendy Wilton, who ran for treasurer; Vince Illuzzi, who ran for auditor; and Randy Brock, who ran for governor.
After the Caesar salads and chicken cordon bleus were devoured, and the plates were cleared, Brown took to the stage.
“Here’s the problem with our party,” he began. “We’re fighting against each other.”
From Vermont all the way down to Southern states, Brown said, this is a problem. The issue was made apparent to him when he was a keynote speaker at the Republican convention in North Carolina.
“The message is the same,” he said. “We have tea party members, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, moderates and liberals, and we fight against each other, and we give the other side the ability to use that to tear us apart, to divide and conquer us.”
These factions of the GOP need to put differences aside for the betterment of the party, he said. Party infighting, Brown continued, is what likely cost him the election in Massachusetts.
“What I didn’t expect was the social conservatives and the tea party members to do and say things so that I had to battle on the left and the right,” he said. “Here I am, a sitting U.S. senator in a state with 11 percent Republican enrollment, and I’m battling with the left … and I’m also battling my flank.”
Brown told the Vermont Republicans to hang in there and pull together.
“Don’t give up. I know it’s frustrating,” he said. “You’re fighting. You’re doing God’s work.”
He then shifted to talking about the state of Vermont’s regulatory climate and its difficulty attracting young, highly skilled workers.
“You have to be competitive on a global basis in order to grow and expand and create jobs, and you’re not going to create jobs by tax and regulatory uncertainty that build barriers to businesses wanting to come to this beautiful part of this country,” he said. “It is breathtaking. But the young people aren’t staying; they’re leaving.”
Vermont, he said, needs better tax breaks and regulatory relief for businesses.
“That’s your challenge when you run for governor is to make sure that happens,” Brown said, speaking directly to Phil Scott from the pulpit.
Is Scott even interested in running for governor?
“No, not at this point in time,” he said. “I’m happy being lieutenant governor, and I think I’m effective in that position.”
What about in the long run?
“This hasn’t been a lifelong ambition or dream of mine to be in political life,” he said. “My lifelong dream was to race cars at Daytona. That didn’t happen, but I got close to it, and that’s my passion. But I’ve found later in life that I have something to offer from a political standpoint.”
On Friday, the most frequently mentioned favorite potential 2014 gubernatorial candidate was Douglas.
“We need someone who can win. He can win,” Mullin said. “I’m encouraging everyone I know to ask Jim Douglas to run. There are some other people who would be strong candidates, but I just think Jim Douglas is the candidate.”
Rep. Tom Terenzini, R-Rutland, seconded that motion.
“It would be a wonderful thing if Jim Douglas did run,” he said. “He was an inspiration as governor.”
But Douglas and his wife, Dorothy, say that won’t happen.
“He’s done that, and it’s time to move on at a slower pace,” Dorothy said.
“That’s the definitive word,” Douglas chimed. “If I run for office, it will be re-election as town moderator in Middlebury. That’s it.”
Rep. Lawrence Cupoli, R-Rutland, said he asked Douglas to run earlier in the evening. He also said Randy Brock would have made a good governor, but “his campaign never got going.”
“There was no spark,” Cupoli said. “Randy is a very articulate, well-educated guy, who would have been a good governor … I don’t see Randy these days. I have not seen Randy at all.”
Other prominent Republican names, like the Snelling Center’s Mark Snelling, swirled around the room as possible candidates come 2014, but nothing was definite.
“I think there are a lot of Republicans that are sitting on the sidelines now, waiting for someone to come forward with great leadership skills to bring us back to where we were,” Terenzini said.
Lindley is confident that the GOP will field a strong candidate against Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2014, and he says the governor is ripe for another run.
“He [Shumlin] has a personality that does not lend itself to what I would call appropriate leadership of a governor,” Lindley said. “He is self-destructing, and we are all sitting and watching it.”