Republicans hold just seven of the Vermont Senate's 30 seats.
But in the past week, three GOP challengers have announced their intention to run for the Senate. And according to Vermont Republican Party political director Brent Burns, two more are soon to jump in. He says he hopes the early announcements will help the party reverse its dwindling political influence in the state.
"We're trying to make gains," he says. "Even a one-seat gain would be a different direction than we've been headed."
At a Montpelier fundraiser for the Senate Republicans' political action committee Wednesday night, two candidates announced their bids. Former party chairwoman, House member and longtime administration official Pat McDonald said she would seek one of three Washington County seats. And Williston attorney Joy Karnes Limoge said she would run for one of six Chittenden County seats.
Last Friday, former House member Dustin Degree said he would seek one of two Franklin County seats. And according to Burns, Bob Frenier of Chelsea plans to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark MacDonald for Orange County's sole Senate seat. Burns says the party has recruited a fifth, as-yet-unnamed candidate to run for one of three Rutland County seats.
McDonald, who lives in Berlin, says she decided to get back into politics after hearing Gov. Peter Shumlin describe the state's opiate problem last month in his State of the State speech.
"There's a laundry list of serious issues we're dealing with," McDonald says. "Poverty, job loss, the mental health system and, obviously, the cost of health care. I just thought, maybe with my background and track record, that maybe I could jump back in and help a little bit, because we're in trouble. I don't like the direction we're going in."
McDonald brings a lengthy resume to the race. She served in the administrations of former governors Dick Snelling, Howard Dean and Jim Douglas in a number of posts, including commissioner of labor, secretary of transportation, deputy commissioner of education and commissioner of motor vehicles. She represented Berlin and Barre City in the Vermont House from 2006 through 2009, managed Lt. Gov. Phil Scott's 2010 campaign and led the Vermont Republican Party for a year.
McDonald's name has been tossed around in recent months as a potential gubernatorial contender. She says she "thought about it a lot," but decided a Senate bid was "the perfect fit." While McDonald will presumably compete with Sens. Bill Doyle (R-Washington), Ann Cummings (D-Washington), Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), she says, "The benefit of having a three-person race is you're not running against anybody. You're running for yourself."
That said, "I think the person I would be the most different from would be Anthony Pollina," McDonald says. "We have very different approaches to issues, and that might be the person people might compare me to the most."
Up in Franklin County, Degree hopes to win a seat he narrowly lost in 2012. The former one-term House member and Douglas administration alum came in a close third that year, losing to Sen. Don Collins (D-Franklin) by just 35 votes after a recount. Fellow Republican Sen. Norm McAllister came in first. According to the Burlington Free Press, Democrat Bill Roberts also plans to mount a challenge.
"We need to restore some balance," he told VPR. "I think that having a loyal opposition in Montpelier is a good thing. I just think [Republicans] need more numbers, and I'd like to be a part of it."
Limoge, a first-time candidate, likely faces the steepest odds of the bunch. In recent years, the only Republican to stand a chance in liberal Chittenden County has been Sen. Diane Snelling, who votes more often with the Democrats than with her own party. Limoge drew some attention in political circles last summer when she represented a neighbor of Shumlin's in a highly public real estate dispute.