The Vermont GOP faces the prospect of another biennium as a superminority in the House.
The Republicans hope to make enough gains in the Vermont House and Senate to wield more power, but those prospects have dimmed.
That’s because the party does not have strong candidates at the top of the ticket, according to Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College professor of political science.
Davis says the Republicans would benefit “from collecting a few high profile scalps,” such as chairs of important committees in the House, but they are unlikely to take more than two seats in the Senate and two to four seats in the House. The GOP currently holds seven seats in the 30-member Senate and 48 of the 150 representatives in the House.
The GOP recruited about 40 new candidates this year, and will have a total of 81 running, but that won’t be enough to turn the tide.
Davis says the Vermont GOP’s inability to recruit statewide candidates for state treasurer, secretary of state, auditor and attorney general indicates the party has organizational and financial difficulties that weaken its chances for regaining seats in the state Legislature. The Republicans have one full-time staffer and $36,430 in cash on hand as of the end of May.
The Vermont Democrats have candidates for all but 16 districts, and most are incumbents, which gives the party a huge boost out of the gate. The party also has strong infrastructure, $119,429 in cash as of May 31 and four full-time staffers.
The GOP strongholds — Franklin, Rutland, Washington and possibly Orange counties — will have competitive races this year, and it’s possible that the Windham County Democratic primary could be contentious.
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Franklin County will be one of the big battlegrounds between Republicans and Democrats. Dustin Degree, a Republican, could displace fellow GOPer Norm McAllister or lose to Sara Kittell, a Democrat, who is back after retiring in the last biennium. She is stepping in for Don Collins who retired at the end of the 2014 session.
Rutland Republican Sens. Peg Flory and Kevin Mullin should be re-elected this year, Davis says, but the third seat could be up for grabs. Sen. Eldred French, a Democrat who was appointed to his seat by Gov. Peter Shumlin could be vulnerable. Brian Collamore and William Tracy Carris (son of former Sen. Bill Carris) could be formidable challengers for French.
In Washington County, Sens. Bill Doyle, a Republican, and Anthony Pollina, a Prog/Dem, will coast to re-election, Davis said. Ann Cummings, who finished second in 2012, is less secure, in his view. Former Rep. Pat McDonald and Dexter Lefavour, both Republicans, are running in Washington County, and Davis gives McDonald a shot at the seat.
Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Democrat, announced that he would not seek re-election this year, and his vacancy has enlivened the Windham County Senate race. There are four Democrats running for two seats in the primary — incumbent Jeanette White, Becca Balint, Joan Bowman and Roger Allbee (the former secretary of the Agency of Agriculture in the Douglas administration). An independent and two Liberty Union candidates are vying in the General Election against the winners of the Democratic primary.
“I have no idea what will happen,” Davis said. “It’s one of the few areas where there could be a decent turnout in the primary.”
Another race that could be contentious, Davis says, is the Bristol district, where Reps. Michael Fisher, chair of the House Health Care Committee, and David Sharpe, vice chair of House Ways and Means, both Democrats, will face off with Republicans Fred Baser and Valerie Mullin. Fisher and Sharpe may have to work a little harder this year, he said, to retain their seats.
The Chittenden 8-3 district would be a “prize” for Republicans, Davis says. Rep. Martha Heath, the longtime chair of House Appropriations, retired at the end of the session and the seat is now up for grabs. Liz Subin, a Democrat, is running against Robert Bancroft, a Republican.
Rep. Sarah Buxton, a Democrat, will face off with former Republican Rep. David Ainsworth in the conservative Windsor-Orange district. Buxton narrowly held on to her seat in 2012 and won by one vote in a race against Ainsworth in 2010.
The lone Democratic House seat in Rutland City held by Rep Herb Russell could also be a win for Republicans, Davis says.
Davis says it’s possible that Progressives could move up the pecking order in the Chittenden County state Senate race. In 2012, Sen. Tim Ashe, a Dem/Prog, topped the ticket, followed by Sens. Ginny Lyons, Sally Fox, both Democrats, David Zuckerman, a Prog/Dem, Diane Snelling, the sole Republican, and Phillip Baruth, a Democrat. Davis predicts Zuckerman could take the No. 3 spot.
As the Vermont GOP struggles to maintain its hold, independents are making a big showing this year with 19 candidates, most of whom are fiscal conservatives. The Progressives, by comparison, have 17 candidates for Senate and House seats, counting the candidates who also run as Democrats.
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The big unknown is what impact outside money will have on House and Senate races. VermontCURE, a Democratic super PAC, is poised to spend thousands of dollars on local district campaigns. In the last election cycle, Lenore Broughton and Vermonters First, a super PAC, bankrolled $1 million in independent expenditures for GOP candidates. There is no indication at this point whether Broughton will be back this election year.
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