Vermont GOP losses spur soul-searching

Kurt Wright

Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright’s defeat was one of a series of unexpected losses for Republican lawmakers this year. File photo by Cory Dawson/VTDigger

In the weeks leading up to the election, Kurt Wright, a longtime Republican House representative in Burlington, believed his seat was in jeopardy.

As Wright went door to door in his district, putting up lawn signs and touting his seven-term record in the Legislature, he soon realized the Vermont Democratic Party was running a coordinated ground campaign and get-out-the vote effort to unseat him.

In late September, Wright called the Vermont Republican Party to warn them. Republican Party officials were surprised. They had him listed as a “safe seat.” Wright, an outspoken moderate who is also chair of the Burlington City Council, has been a popular incumbent for years.

Wright’s seat, however, was anything but safe. And in the end, his diligent campaigning in the North End and an 11th-hour endorsement from Democratic mayor Miro Weinberger, did not save him from defeat. Democrats Carol Ode, an incumbent, and Robert Hooper swept in on a tide of strong turnout and the support of hundreds of newly registered voters.

Wright was one of several GOP incumbents who lost seats in a series of upsets on election day that shocked party members. Several other popular moderate Republican incumbents including Fred Baser, R-Bristol, and Brian Keefe, R-Manchester, also lost.

In all, Democrats picked up 12 new seats in the House.

“What took a hit Tuesday night is the center in politics, and the center in the Republican party,” Wright said.

Center-right candidates who lost in liberal to moderate districts took the hit because of anti-Trump sentiment and effective organizing by Democrats, political observers day.

While Republicans were able to hold the governor’s office, re-electing Scott by a strong margin to a second term, the party has only 43 seats in the House, well short of the 50 needed to uphold a gubernatorial veto and prevent a Democratic override.

Last session, when they had 53 members, Scott handed down a record number of vetoes.

The party also lost a seat in the Senate where Democrats have maintained an overwhelming majority for more than a decade. With Democrat Cheryl Hooker’s win in Rutland, a Republican stronghold, the GOP now only has six seats in the chamber.

Republican candidates — even popular incumbents — found it difficult to navigate campaigning in a blue state with a party label inextricably linked to President Donald Trump. Polls show the president is deeply unpopular in Vermont.

While Gov. Phil Scott has run and governed on an anti-Trump platform — emphasizing the need for civility and eschewing the president’s immigration policies — the Vermont Republican Party is led by a contingent of Trump supporters. Critics say in order to appeal to Vermont voters and atrract a deeper bench of moderate candidates, the state Republican party should take a page from Scott and disavow Trump altogether.

Eric Davis, a longtime observer of Vermont politics and professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, sees the Republican losses as a “consequence” of the impact of the more conservative Trump administration on local politics.

“This is the worst shape the GOP has been in in the modern era of Vermont politics,” Davis said.

Davis said national Republicans are “a majority liability” for the party in Vermont, and many Republican candidates said running in the Trump era has been particularly difficult.

To make political gains in the state, Davis said, the party should focus on running moderate, center-right candidates in more populated districts. Perhaps, he suggested, Republicans should even run under different party labels.

“As the national Republican Party has become more conservative … people who used to think of themselves as Republicans in New England now call themselves independents and vote for Democrats,” Davis said.

Heading into future campaign cycles, Republicans say they need to focus on building a bench of viable candidates. The party has struggled to attract talent and few qualified Republican candidates are waiting in the wings to run for top positions. In races for Vermont Attorney General, secretary of state, state treasurer and state auditor, none of the Republican challengers had name recognition or long standing in politics.

Don Turner

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Don Turner applauds at the Republican election night party in South Burlington on Tuesday. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Don Turner, the outgoing House minority leader and candidate for lieutenant governor, said Republicans should revamp the party’s policy platform to appeal to a broader cross section of voters.

Turner, who this year ran for lieutenant governor against incumbent David Zuckerman and lost, said the party should consider focusing on issues like improving access to higher education and technical training — in addition to affordability and holding the line on tax increases.

“I think we have to work harder on our messaging,” Turner said. “We have to work harder on what’s important to Vermonters today. We have to be open to different things than we’ve been open to in the past.”

A blue wave set off by dissatisfaction with Trump made it harder for Republicans to gain traction.

Rep. Corey Parent, R-St. Albans, who won a seat in the Senate, said anti-Trump sentiment among voters was loud and clear on the campaign trail.

“We were nervous up here,” Parent said.

“We heard it at doors and if you didn’t get out … and talk to voters individually, they are going to to lump you in with the president in a lot of ways,” he said.

Mike Donohue, the chair of the Chittenden County Republican committee, said the candidates who won had well-established public identities.

“There were a lot of candidates who ran strong races who just couldn’t swim against this tide,” Donohue said.

In Chittenden County, Republicans hoped one or more of their three Senate candidates, including Alex Farrell, a 25-year-old rising star in the party, would be able to unseat Democratic incumbents.

But none came close. Farrell only received about 19,000 votes, roughly 5 percent of the total ballots cast. He fell far behind the elected senator with the fewest votes: Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, who received about 30,000 votes.

The party is hoping to attract more energized candidates like Farrell. “They need to find a lot more Alex Farrells,” Wright said. “Because I do think there’s not a good bench and not a lot of strong candidates.”

“We really don’t have anyone on the bench,” Parent said. “…and it’s continuing to build that bench that’s going to be critical for the long term sustainability of the party.”
This year, the Republican Party went right up to the deadline before finding candidates to run for statewide and federal offices and oppose entrenched incumbents, including Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. and Peter Welch, D-Vt.

H. Brooke Paige, a political gadfly, ran and won the nomination for five positions in the primary: U.S. senator, U.S. House, Vermont treasurer, state auditor, and secretary of state. He pulled out of all of the races, except for the secretary of state’s race, so that the party could nominate others to run.

Brooke Paige

H. Brooke Paige on primary election day, August 15, 2018. Supplied photo

However, none of the candidates tapped by the party had political experience, or name recognition, and none could mount serious challenges against the longstanding incumbents.

“I think the party’s inability to then organize beyond that, to get the right candidates in there, was a totally missed and failed opportunity,” one longtime Vermont Republican strategist said. The strategist said that looking ahead, the party should prioritize developing strong candidates for statewide and federal offices: viable Republican challenges for these positions would likely inspire more enthusiasm for the party down the ballot.

While Republicans struggled in legislative races last week, Scott cruised to reelection by 15 points over Democrat Christine Hallquist.

Scott has been widely viewed as a model for Republican political success in Vermont. A fiscal conservative who leans liberal on most social issues, the governor has been able to maintain broad, bipartisan appeal among voters. He has also consistently opposed Trump.

Republicans have noted dissonance between the moderate approach adopted by Scott and some other state GOP politicians, who have avoided drawing connections between themselves and the president, and the approach taken by officials at the Vermont Republican Party, who have arguably sought to align themselves with Trump.

In August, one of the party’s messaging campaigns exposed this rift. Officials blasted out an email asking donors for their help to “Make Vermont Great Again.”

“Though the days of the traditional, conservative Vermont we all grew up in may seem gone, it does NOT mean it is gone for good,” the party wrote. “If we are ever going to return Vermont back to its former glory, we need to band together to toss out every last liberal elitist politician in Montpelier.”

While some Republicans hailed the email as a message of unity in a divisive time, others criticized it for employing Trump style rhetoric — a turnoff in Vermont.

“If the party decides to continue to go down that path of touting Trump…it’s only going to exacerbate the problem that exists,” Wright said.

To grow, the party needs to adopt an approach to politics that more closely resembles Scott’s centrist position, according to Patti Komline, a lobbyist and former Republican House minority leader.

“It would help if the party recognized where the state is, as opposed to little pockets of social conservative areas of Vermont,” Komline said. “If the party wants to have relevance in Vermont it would be wise to recognize where most people’s priorities lie.”

Deb Billado, the chair of the Vermont Republican Party, did not respond to a request for comment.

Brady Toensing, the vice-chair state GOP party said that while the party supports Trump, “ it hasn’t gone out of its way to embrace the president.”

“It just hasn’t gone out of its way to criticize him either,” he said.

Toensing said that going forward, the party will be focusing on recruitment: finding strong candidates who can “convey the party’s message of affordability.”

He feels Republicans in Vermont could do a better job of drawing contrasts between themselves and Democrats by pointing out the “consequences” of the policies championed by the opposing party, such as gun control measures and a $15 minimum wage.

The reflexive reaction of voters who may be casting ballots against Trump, and making it harder for Republicans to win elections is a “cyclical phenomenon,” he said. Politicians of both parties in Vermont face that problem when the president of the opposing party is elected.

“We should be ready for that and anticipate it and in the next cycle,” Toensing said. “We need to recruit more candidates and better candidates and we need to double down on how hard we fight.”

Republicans were once the dominant party in Vermont, with icons including progressive George Aiken, who served as governor and U.S. senator. It took a century for Democrats, led by Phil Hoff who won a bid for governor in 1962, to break through.

Since then, Republicans including Gov. Jim Douglas, who served four terms, and Jim Jeffords, a longtime House member and U.S. Senator, have had electoral success. Jeffords broke with his party in 2001 after the election of George W. Bush, becoming an independent and throwing the balance of the Senate back to the Democrats.

Rep. Robert LaClair, R-Barre, who worked with the state Republican party to field candidates in the last elections, said there’s no question Trump made it more difficult for the party’s candidates to fare well.

But he said that national politics aren’t solely responsible for the party’s losses.

“We as Vermont Republicans have to take a step back and say ‘OK what are Vermonters saying that potentially we’re not hearing,'” he said. “Clearly there’s more out there that they’re interested in than holding the line on taxes and affordability.”

LeClair signaled he might be open to compromising on Democrat-backed proposals, including raising the minimum wage and establishing a statewide paid family leave program, which Scott vetoed and GOP House members vigorously opposed in the last legislative session.

“We may need to be a part of figuring out a way to make that work, instead of [saying] ‘No, not now,'” he said of paid family leave.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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