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.

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  • Paul Richards

    Yup, the plan is almost complete; destroy any opposition. That will help our Democracy. It’s working so well now.
    Cantor is gone; let’s hope the sleeping giant has finally awoken for the sake of our nation and the world!

  • Kim Fried Newark, Vermont

    Vermont needs a change of direction and it’s time to elect a Governor that is down to earth, has common sense, and does what’s best for our small state. We don’t need a show boater just waiting to move on to Washington. We need a humble, honest, working citizen to represent us in Vermont as our Governor. Scott Milne is that person.

  • Keith Stern

    The Republican party is not lacking good people and people willing to represent the state but rather leadership at the top. Phil Scott is no leader whatsoever and David Sunderland is pretty useless.
    If and when the party gets leaders the party will rebound. People will eventually realize that the Democrat’s plans will hurt Vermonters. Anyone with their eyes open would see it now.

  • Walter Carpenter

    “People will eventually realize that the Democrat’s plans will hurt Vermonters. Anyone with their eyes open would see it now.”

    How so? Is raising the minimum wage going to hurt Vermonters?

  • Its interesting how VT Digger does the work of the corporate politicians. My views are on the outside of the mainstream politics, but not so outside regular people. Most people see that 10.10 for minimum wage is still half a living wage and thus partial enslavement. Most people see that the no matter what the crime the uber wealth does not go to jail. Most people see that the NSA is violating the constitution, and Obama with them. Most people see that the duel party system condoned and nurtured by corporate American is the problem. But VT Digger doesn’t. VT Digger has always a harsh word or description for my work, the last two cycles, as per your love for the corporate method, you at VT digger failed to write anything at all about what I stand for, as you do here, because it is you that cannot do due diligent journalism. I intend to get something done, and that I have had to run for a third cycle does not make me a perennial candidate ( that goes to Brock doesn’t it?) , but a determined one. You might serve journalistic truth a bit better if you refrained from the negative and actually sent a fair reporter my way. I’m guessing you haven’t the balls. I am opposed the the F 35s, and I believe I have a lot of support there, I am opposed to the fracked gas pipeline, many supporters there, I am opposed to big wind, and I want to see research and development budget for collegiate hemp. WE need a state bank, and a complete overhaul of our criminal justice industry, as well as a reduction of our opiate and other drug prescription practices, perma farm policy, and lets see what else, oh yes, open debates with all candidates, and an integrated democracy.

  • Randy Koch

    Well, or the GOP could have borrowed from the wily Progressive’s playbook: run in and win the primary but then withdraw from the final race. That indicated that the Progs really had nothing to offer. In this era of convergence, it questionable that the GOP has anything to offer beyond what the moderate GOPish Shumlin isn’t already provding.

  • Renée Carpenter

    Why doesn’t vtdigger.org send “a fair reporter ” to interview Emily Peyton?

    I’d like to hear how she feels about a “People’s Budget” (another under-reported story), about campaign finance reform and more about the few issues she identified in her reply.

    I’m also curious as to why she runs as a Republican. How do we tease out the party platforms in our state? Progressives are hardly mentioned as such in most political discussions, even though they are a major party in Vermont. Why is Emily not running as a “P?”

    I’m sure an unbiased vtdigger.org reporter could come up with more questions than that. Isn’t that what is required in a Democracy–fair coverage of all candidates?

  • Peggy Luhrs

    Ooh this reporter wants any guy who’ll represent for the Repulicans. I remember Neil Kashkari. He was Henry Paulson’s mini me
    who carried out the cash from the treasury to the big banks. Good he’s running maybe there is more to be robbed from the people. And Emily Peyton is right most people agree with the positions she outlines. However we run now not on what the people want so much as what money means to have for itself. Yet in Vermont people do still have a vote and this guy will absolutely lose to Shumlin. Reporter here is trying to drum up a horse race because that is a reporter’s meat and potatoes. Shumlin will win because Vermont knows who and how bad the Republicans are. Hopefully they will eventually become aware that Dems like Shummy are there to protect the money and the gaz companies and keep favor by being liberal on the social issues. One more prediction Dean Corren wins as Gov. Lite.