The Vermont GOP is gearing up for a ground war with Democrats in House and Senate races across the state. The Republicans have recruited 36 new candidates running for House seats (with at least 74 running altogether) and they believe they have a shot at regaining enough seats to tip the balance of power in the Statehouse.
The state party has been aggressively recruiting high-profile candidates that party officials say have a good shot at winning seats in conservative strongholds — Rutland, Bennington and Orleans counties — and in areas that Democrats have typically dominated, including central Vermont and Chittenden County.
After three less-than-stellar election cycles — the state Republican Party hopes to push the Democrats out of their super majority status in the House.
With House Speaker Shap Smith at the helm, the Democrats have held two-thirds of the 150 seats in the Vermont House since 2009. The GOP has had between 45 and 48 representatives during that period, and the Progressives, who are philosophically aligned with Democrats on several issues including health care, typically hold a handful of seats, and this year an equal number of independents will try their luck.
The GOP holds seven seats in the 30-member Senate, and they hope to gain at least three more. Republicans are targeting Sens. Don Collins, D-Franklin; Ann Cummings, D-Washington; Eldred French, D-Rutland, and John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans.
With the Dems smarting over public antipathy to higher property tax rates and frustration over the repeated failures of the Vermont Health Connect system, the Republicans believe they have key wedge issues they can leverage in the 2014 election. The GOP has candidates vying for the seats of several chairs of committees, including Rep. Martha Heath of Westford, head of House Appropriations, and Rep. Mike Fisher of Lincoln, head of House Health Care.
Dave Sunderland, chair of the Vermont GOP, says the goal is to “bring some balance back to the Legislature and state government.
“That’s the focus for all of our work that we can restore some balance in Montpelier, and bring a stronger voice for people who feel left out of the process over the last four years,” Sunderland said.
The party has put a lot of focus on candidates for legislative races this year, and Sunderland says he is pleased with the number and quality of the candidates who have stepped up this year, and he expects more to come forward before the June 12 deadline for candidate petitions.
Recruitment “has not been that difficult,” Sunderland says, and he believes that “reflects a growing concern among Vermonters about the status of the economic direction our state is headed and the lack of growth and lack of action from Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Legislature to address it.”
Democrats say they’re not worried about the troubled rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the lack of progress on property tax reform or polls showing flagging popularity for Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“We are proud of our successes (in the legislative session),” said Julia Barnes, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. “And we will take that into our conversations with voters.”
Barnes cited victories for Vermont families on increasing the minimum wage, a landmark GMO labeling bill, attention to opiate addiction and the creation of universal public preschool opportunities.
“We’re going to go after as many (seats) as we can,” Barnes said. “We plan to organize in every Vermont district and provide support for all of our House and Senate candidates. Our goal is to win.”
Eric Davis, a pundit and retired Middlebury College political science professor, says the GOP could potentially pick up House seats in more conservative areas of the state, including St. Johnsbury, Colchester, Rutland City, Clarendon/Proctor, Brandon, St. Albans, Fairfax and the Northeast Kingdom.
Davis says Senate seats will be most competitive in Franklin and Rutland counties. Dustin Degree, who lost in 2012, could beat Collins, the incumbent Democrat, Davis says, and Sen. Eldred French, an appointee of the governor, could be vulnerable. The chance that another Republican would join Sen. Diane Snelling in Chittenden County is unlikely, he says. Pat McDonald’s quest for a seat in Washington County could be difficult, in his view, because he doesn’t think central Vermonters will support more than one Republican candidate (Sen. Bill Doyle).
Ben Sarles, communications director for the Vermont Dems, declined to give VTDigger a list of new House and Senate recruits, nor would he confirm wide speculation that the party will be drumming up candidates to run against Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, and Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington.
Galbraith is a maverick who often bucks the party on key issues, largely on philosophical grounds, but usually votes with the party. Browning often votes with Republicans and has sued Shumlin for documents created in the development of his secret financing plan for universal health care.
The Progressives will have 10 candidates running for House seats, including seven incumbents.
Independent candidates are popping up in more races around the state.
A number of Democrats will retire from the House this year, as will several Republicans. No retirements have been announced in the Senate.
Democratic representatives who will retire this year
Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury
Anne Mook, D-Bennington
Jeff Wilson, D-Manchester
Kristina Michelson, D-Hardwick
Suzi Wizowaty, D-Burlington
George Cross, D-Winooski
Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury
Sheila Volwinkle, D-Hartford
Cynthia Martin, D-Springfield
Republican representatives who will retire this year
Andy Donaghy, R-Ira/Poultney
Duncan Kilmartin, R-Newport
Tom Koch, R-Barre Town
Phil Winter, R-Williamstown
John Mitchell, R-Fairfax
Independents leaving office
Tim Goodwin, I-Weston
Will Stevens, I-Shoreham
Here is a partial breakdown of new Republican, Progressive and independent candidates for House races as of May 15.
Debbie Ratcliff, Chittenden-3: Jericho/Underhill. She will run against Democrat George Till.
Lawrence W. Hamel, Caledonia-2: Hardwick, Stannard, Walden. Open seat.
Marcia Martel, Caledonia-1: Barnet, Ryegate, Waterford. Open seat.
Janssen Willhoit, Caledonia 3: St. Johnsbury. Vying with incumbent Democrats Michelle Fay and Bob South.
Tom Moore, Caledonia 3: St. Johnsbury. Vying with incumbent Democrats Michelle Fay and Bob South.
Ed Stone, Chittenden 4-1: Charlotte/Hinesburg,
Michael Ly, Chittenden 6-1: Burlington’s near north area. Kurt Wright, a Republican, and Joanna Cole, a Democrat, are the incumbents.
Paul Dame and Laurie Mitchell, Chittenden 8-2: Essex. Incumbents are Tim Jerman and Linda Waite-Simpson, both Democrats.
Bob Bancroft, Chittenden 8-3: Essex, Westford. Incumbent Democrat Martha Heath is chair of House Appropriations.
Pam Loranger, Chittenden 9-2: Patrick Brennan, a Republican and Kristy Spengler, a Democrat are the incumbents.
Claude Bouchard, Franklin 3-1: St. Albans. Incumbents are Kathy Keenan and Mike McCarthy, both Democrats.
Corey Parent, Franklin 3-1: St. Albans. Incumbents are Kathy Keenan and Mike McCarthy, both Democrats.
Brian Westcom, Franklin-6: Bakersfield, Fairfield, Fletcher. Daniel Conner is the incumbent Democrat.
Larry Fisk, Franklin-7: Enosburg, Montgomery. Democrat Cindy Weed is the incumbent.
Shane Bouthillette, Lamoille-2: Johnson, Belvidere, Hyde Park. Mark Woodward and Linda Martin are the incumbent Democrats.
Lucien Gravel, Lamoille-2: Johnson, Belvidere, Hyde Park. Mark Woodward and Linda Martin are the incumbent Democrats.
Gary Viens, Orleans-2: Newport, Coventry, Irasburg, Troy. Open seat.
Devan Small, Orleans-Caledonia: Albany, Barton, Craftsbury, Glover, Greensboro, Sheffield, Wheelock. Incumbents are Republican Vicki Strong and Democrat Sam Young.
Patty McCoy, Rutland 1: Ira/Poultney. Open seat.
Val Harris, Rutland-Bennington: Middletown Springs, Pawlet, Rupert, Tinmouth, Wells. John Malcolm is the Democratic incumbent.
Job Tate, Rutland Windsor-1: Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington, Mendon. Anne Gallivan is the Democratic incumbent.
Rob Leclair, Washington-2: Barre Town. Open seat.
John Santerello, Washington-3: Barre City. Incumbent Paul Poirier is an independent. Democrat Tommy Walz is a recent appointee of the governor who replaced Tess Taylor, the former majority whip of the House.
Kristin Sohlstrom, Washington-3: Barre City. Incumbent Paul Poirier is an independent. Democrat Tommy Walz is a recent appointee of the governor who replaced Tess Taylor, the former majority whip of the House.
Ken Harrington, Bennington-3: Glastenbury, Shaftsbury, Sunderland. Alice Miller is the Democratic incumbent.
Valerie Mullin, Addison-4: Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, Starksboro. Incumbents are Mike Fisher, chair of House Health Care, and Dave Sharpe, both Democrats.
Fred Baser, Addison-4: Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, Starksboro. Incumbents are Mike Fisher, chair of House Health Care, and Dave Sharpe, both Democrats.
Richard Rotax, Addison-3: Addison, Ferrisburgh, Panton, Vergennes, Waltham. Incumbents are Republican Warren Van Wyck and Democrat Diane Lanpher.
Carl Davis, a Progressive, is running for Kilmartin’s seat in Newport.
Teresa Ellsworth, a Progressive, is running for the Windham-Bennington-Windsor seat against Oliver Olsen, an independent and former representative.
Calvin McEathron, a recent Middlebury graduate, is running in Addison-1 for Paul Ralston’s seat.
Barbara Murphy, the Fairfax town clerk, is running in the Franklin-2 district, for John Mitchell’s seat.
Oliver Olsen, a former representative, is running as an independent for the Windham-Bennington-Windsor seat against Teresa Ellsworth, a Progressive, for Tim Goodwin’s seat.
Tim Ryan, who lost in the 2012 election, will be running in Addison-2 against Democrat Willem Jewett, majority leader of the House.
Laura Sibilia, Windham-Bennington-1, will run against incumbent Democrat John Moran.
Heidi Spear, Washington-7: Incumbents are Democrat Maxine Grad and Adam Greshin, an independent.
Ed Reed, Washington-7: Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield, Warren. Incumbents are Democrat Maxine Grad and Adam Greshin, an independent.
Jerry Mullin, Washington-Chittenden: Bolton, Buel’s Gore, Huntington, Waterbury. Incumbent Democrats are Rebecca Ellis and Tom Stevens.
Dustin Degree, a Republican who lost in 2012, will run against Sen. Don Collins, D-Franklin, in a three-way race (so far, last cycle it was a four-way) with Sen. Norm McAllister, D-Franklin.
Pat McDonald, a former Vermont GOP chair, House representative and agency secretary under Govs. Richard Snelling, Howard Dean and Jim Douglas, is running in Washington County. The incumbents are Sens. Anthony Pollina, a Progressive Democrat; Ann Cummings, a Democrat; and Bill Doyle, a Republican.
Dexter Lefavour, an Republican from Middlesex, is also running in the Washington County Senate race.
Republican Joy Limoge will seek a Chittenden County senate seat.
Bob Frenier, a Chelsea businessman and a Republican, is running against Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Rep. Leigh Larocque, R-Barnet, was retiring. He will seek re-election. Sibilia is running against John Moran, not Valerie Stuart as originally reported.