Margolis: Milne gallops to the rescue of threadbare Vermont GOP

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

The cliché – the lazy writer’s easy out – should usually be shunned, but right now, one of them perfectly sums up Vermont politics: Boy, did the state’s Republican Party just dodge a bullet.

By announcing – on the last day if not quite the last minute – that he would be the Republican candidate for governor, Pomfret businessman Scott Milne saved his party from what would have been five months of humiliation, if not disaster.

Political parties simply do not leave that line blank. Not that it has never happened, but it is very rare. A party that does not put up a candidate for governor barely exists, and perhaps shouldn’t. Political parties in America are essentially state – not national – entities. If a state party does not at least go through the motions of trying to elect a governor, why does it exist at all?

Scott Milne is president of Milne Travel American Express. Courtesy photo

Scott Milne is president of Milne Travel American Express. Courtesy photo

That’s why a fellow named A.J. Balukoff will run as a Democrat for governor of Idaho, where Barack Obama got less than a third of the vote. It’s why one Neel Kashkari, a banker who has never run for office, will oppose Democratic incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown in California, where Obama got almost 60 percent and Brown’s poll approval numbers approach the stratosphere.

Neither man is likely to win, but by running, they preserve their party’s bona fides, as well as its dignity.

By his own testimony, Milne is not likely to win, either. Announcing his candidacy Thursday morning on the Mark Johnson radio program on WDEV-AM, Milne agreed that his race against Democratic incumbent Peter Shumlin was “a long shot.”

Considering that the 55-year-old travel agency owner has never held public office, has raised little or no money, has barely begun to put together an organization, and is running as a Republican in a very Democratic state, that assessment might be considered excessively optimistic.

But bear in mind another cliché – this one with an identifiable author, the eminent American philosopher Lawrence Peter Berra, who first used it in regard not to politics but to a closely related enterprise, baseball: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

This one will be over Nov. 4. No politician is unbeatable, a lesson re-taught (but not necessarily learned) this week when U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. His opponent was also little-known and far outspent. Peter Shumlin is respected but not beloved, and with a little luck, a good candidate could threaten him.

Whether Milne turns out to be a good candidate remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that his announcement saves the state GOP from an embarrassing situation.

Or – perhaps – two of them.

The first – or at least the earlier – was that the party would have had to resort to one esoteric strategy or another to prevent perennial candidate Emily Peyton from leading its ticket. Peyton, whose political views are (to be gentle) outside the mainstream, has filed her petitions to be the GOP candidate for governor. Unless someone beats her in the primary, she would be the party’s nominee.

Milne should easily beat her. But had he not run, the party might have had to convince a better-known Republican to mount a write-in campaign, win it, and then withdraw from the race, leaving the GOP line blank.

Dave Sunderlund is seeking the chairmanship of the state Republican Party. Courtesy photo

Dave Sunderland. Courtesy photo

That would have been embarrassing to the GOP, but perhaps less embarrassing than having Peyton’s name on their line, even though party chairman David Sunderland pointed out that the state GOP would not have been able to “support or promote” Peyton due to a party rule.

The rule, Sunderland said, forbids Republicans from supporting a candidate who has run in two consecutive statewide election without receiving at least 25 percent of the vote. He said it was adopted before his chairmanship, but fairly recently, meaning it was probably adopted specifically to discourage Peyton or other fringe candidates from using the Republican line for their own purposes.

A vibrant party needs no such rule.

But now it turns out that, under the political radar screen, another candidate was planning to seek the GOP nomination, and has filed the required petitions.

The candidate is Steve Berry of Wolcott, who is even more unknown than Milne, or, for that matter, Peyton. Were it just the two of them, Berry would probably defeat Peyton, but that might have left the state GOP with another potential embarrassment: a nominee perhaps from the right fringe of the political spectrum.

The “perhaps” is needed because very little could be learned about Berry on Thursday, but he does seem to be a follower of the ultra-conservative “Freedom Works” website.

Possibly out of mere curiosity, of course, but just as possibly because he shares their views, and another thing the Vermont Republican Party does not need right now is a gubernatorial candidate who agrees with Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul more than with … well, with moderate Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

By all indications, Milne, a friend of Scott’s, is from the party’s moderate wing. As he announced his candidacy, he even turned down the chance to excoriate Shumlin’s plan to create a universal health care system in Vermont.

“Single-payer is pretty complicated,” was as tough as he would get.

Sunderland said the Republican State Committee would remain neutral between Milne and Berry. “That’s what we have primaries for,” he said. “Both will be able to bring their message to the voters.”

But there seems little doubt that Milne will be the choice of the party establishment. With Milne and Scott at the head of the ticket, the party’s moderate faction would clearly be dominant. The more conservative wing of Vermont Republicans seem to have been reduced to the role of gadfly. The conservatives can raise money, create organizations (Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, Vermonters First) whose spokespeople get quoted in news stories. What they can’t seem to do is elect – or for the nonce even nominate – any statewide candidate, and not very many for the Legislature.

But that weakness only illustrates the weakness of the entire party. Those two moderates at the top of the ticket? They’re the whole Republican ticket. No Republican has filed to run for secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer or auditor of accounts.

“It’s a difficult race to have people enter with entrenched incumbent Democrats holding those spots,” he said of Jim Condos, Bill Sorrell, Beth Pearce and Doug Hoffer, respectively.

It is. But except for AG Sorrell, none of those Democrats is a household name or a whizz-banger of a candidate. A strong political party would be full of ambitious young politicians willing to make those races. Even losing could elevate a politician’s profile and win the party’s admiration, perhaps paving the way for a successful run in the future.

As the eminent American philosopher Lawrence Peter Berra might have put it, Vermont Republicans ain’t got no bench.

This particular bullet may have been dodged. But the Vermont Republican Party remains in the cross hairs, its relevance – perhaps even its survival? – in some doubt.

Jon Margolis

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