In what could be seen as a rebuke of their own sitting governor, delegates of the Vermont Republican Party elected Deb Billado of Essex Junction as state party chair, replacing David Sunderland, who stepped down after four years in the post.
Gov. Phil Scott and many other prominent Republicans had endorsed Mike Donohue of Shelburne, but he fell just short — losing by the narrowest of margins, perhaps as little as a single vote. No official tally was announced, and Billado's selection was quickly made unanimous by delegates assembled at Montpelier's Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center.
Donohue moved to Vermont permanently in 2016. He had spent the previous 15 years as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for business groups and the Catholic Archdiocese of Arlington, Va. Before that, he had worked in a variety of roles in Republican politics, including a stint as deputy press secretary on Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 2000 campaign for president.
He had secured the endorsements of Scott, Senate Minority Leader Dustin Degree (R-Franklin), Sen. Brian Collamore (R-Rutland), eight Republican state representatives, two former lawmakers, party finance chair Dawn Terrill and Mary Daly, member of the party's executive committee and Orange County party chair.
Billado (pronounced BILL-a-doo) is a retired small-business owner who was, until recently, Chittenden County GOP chair; she stepped down in October to seek the statewide post. She was one of the earliest and most ardent supporters of Donald Trump's candidacy for president.
There was precious little talk of Trump or the national GOP at the meeting; discussion focused on maintaining unity,growing the state party, recharging its financial batteries, holding onto Republican seats in the legislature and making further inroads into Democratic majorities in the Vermont House and Senate.
"It's important that we continue to foster an environment where we can differ with each other, but come together for what's important," she told the delegates. "I would like to be the person that any one of you can pick up the phone and call with anything that you want to talk about."
She suggested the idea of a "Contract With Vermont, a real set of promises made to Vermonters that we can and will keep." There's a bit of irony in that, since her opponent had worked to advance the original Contract With America back in 1994. The idea seemed to resonate with many delegates, although Donohue cautioned from his own experience that such a contract would require a lot of hard work and the maximum possible buy-in from the party's candidates.
Donohue acknowledged his newcomer status. "I've been working hard over the last several weeks, trying to connect with you." he told the delegates. "One of the things I've heard is that I haven't put in my time. While I haven't been in Vermont as a permanent resident for long, I have put in my time for the party."
In the end, a bare majority seemed to decide that they wanted to see a few more rings on his tree. Donohue promised to continue his involvement in the VTGOP; he had been elected in October to succeed Billado as Chittenden County party chair and will continue in that role.
Delegates reelected Brady Toensing as state party vice chair, chose Rick Morton as treasurer and Deb Ricker as secretary. (Ricker had been party treasurer.) None of the three races were contested.
Before officially stepping aside as party chair, Sunderland gave a short speech that brought him to tears on multiple occasions, as he recalled the hard work of his fellow party leaders and staff and the sacrifices his family made so he could carry on the work.
"I have four little ones at home who say goodbye to their dad a lot," he said, pausing to compose himself. He thanked them, and especially his wife, Theresa, "the one who stays home with them." At the end, the delegates gave Sunderland a standing ovation.
Billado takes over a party with some obvious weaknesses. There's an uneasy relationship between the moderate Republican Scott and the conservative base. Also, the VTGOP has been chronically short of funds in recent years; a treasurer's report to the state party meeting shows that this is still the case.
Fundraising has fallen behind expectations this year, and the party has a mere $8,000 in the bank. Billado will have to figure out what her immediate predecessors couldn't: how to convince conservative donors — especially those capable of giving four-figure donations without wincing — to open up their wallets in support of the VTGOP.