Margolis: Gadflies have taken over state GOP reins

Phil Scott and Deb Billado
Gov. Phil Scott and Vermont Republican Party Chair Deb Billado on election night 2018. File photos by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

Donald Trump has lots of Vermont supporters. Extrapolating from the latest voter registration and polling data, some 156,800 registered voters in Vermont approve of how the Republican president is doing his job.

A goodly collection of folks by any measurement. Not a single stadium, mansion, or manor in the state could fit them all in.

Sounds pretty impressive. The problem, from the pro-Trump, Republican perspective, is that (extrapolating from the same info) 318,500 Vermonters do not approve of Trump’s presidency.

That’s better than a 2-to1 anti-Trump majority, and though polls measure only outlook, not its intensity, it’s safe to say that much of that anti-Trump outlook is very intense, creating, as the economists might say, a marginal disincentive for any Vermont political organization to ally itself with Trump.

Especially because not all anti-Trump Vermonters are Democrats. The most prominent Vermonter who objects to much of what the president does is Vermont’s most prominent Republican, Gov. Phil Scott.

Creating (as the economists might say) even greater disincentive for a Republican political organization to ally itself with Trump.

But there is one, and it isn’t just any Republican organization. It’s the state’s official, central, Republican organization: the Republican State Committee, which just reelected – without opposition – state party Chair Deb Billado.

The same Deb Billado who a few months ago called anti-Trump forces “a mob of hate-crazed, fear-driven people who have become deranged.”

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Democrats ignored her. Scott did not. He called her remarks “unfortunate.” The governor, it seems, doesn’t approve of the way his own party in his own state is doing its job, either.

There is nothing totally new about tensions between a governor and his or her party leadership. They have different constituencies. But they usually try to work together, or at least to appear as though they are trying to work together. Right now, neither side is trying very hard.

The schism can’t be good for either the governor or the party. But it does not impact them evenly. For Scott, assuming he runs for a third term next year, the lack of enthusiastic support or perhaps even opposition from the state committee looms as an annoyance.

“He doesn’t need them to get reelected,” said Eric Davis the longtime observer of Vermont politics who is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College. “The governor has his own personal base which is probably larger than the Republican Party’s.”

Eric Davis, professor emeritus at Middlebury College. Courtesy photo

As a popular incumbent, Scott can raise money and create an effective political organization with or without the help of the state committee. Even in the unlikely event that the party organization supports John Klar or another Scott opponent in the primary, Scott should easily prevail. Vermont is not a party registration state in which only devoted Republicans can vote in a GOP primary. In the broader electorate, he would be favored.

The long-term prospects for the Republican Party as an institution in Vermont are far bleaker, especially if it continues to be a pro-Trump party. With no other statewide elected officials except Scott, scant prospects of winning any of them next year, and small minorities in both houses, Republicans seem destined for long-term minority status.

“It’s amazing,” said Garrison Nelson, the retired University of Vermont political science professor. “This was the single most successful state Republican Party in American history. It dominated the state for a hundred years. And it’s virtually vanished from the scene.”

Davis agreed. “Once Phil Scott decides he no longer wants to be governor, where do Republicans turn?” he said. Davis said he could think of only two Republicans – Sen. Joe Benning of Caledonia and Rep. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe – who seemed likely to be viable statewide candidates in the near future. Both, like Scott, are moderates.

Heidi Scheuermann
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

To some extent, Scott may have created his problems with the state committee by not being tougher with it. According to Nancy Martorano Miller, a political scientist at University of Dayton who studies state politics, new governors often put their own person in charge of their state party.

That’s what her state’s former Republican governor, John Kasich, did when he took office in 2011. “He pushed out the state chair and put in one of his backers,” Miller said. “It was pretty contentious at the time.”

Scott chose not to do that. Maybe because, as Garrison Nelson said, “he is not a warrior.” Maybe because he thought it wasn’t necessary. As he apparently thought it was unnecessary, or at least not worth the trouble, to try to stop Billado’s reelection the other day. All over the country, party organizations are less important than they used to be, and as Nelson said, “politics in Vermont is personal, not partisan.”

Besides, Billado and her pro-Trump supporters have their bona fides. As mentioned, they represent something like a third of Vermont’s voters, and they at least match their opponents in intensity. A third always gets outvoted by two-thirds, but it gets to organize and participate.

In a sense, the Republican State Committee is playing the role that some single-issue groups play on the left side of the political spectrum – gadflies who try to persuade (or coerce) the mainstream parties to move in one direction or another.

But in this case, the gadflies have taken over the party.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is the author of "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964." Margolis left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. He was previously the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday and has also been a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the U.S. Army.

Email: [email protected]

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