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Elephant's Lament: VTGOP Ranks Are Deeply Divided

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Deb Billado and Mike Donohue - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Deb Billado and Mike Donohue

Over the past 15 years, Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) has been a Republican Party stalwart. He's had his wins and losses, but he has always answered the bell — serving as state auditor, legislator and gubernatorial nominee. Throughout this time, he has generously underwritten GOP causes.

But Brock is fed up with the Vermont Republican Party. Though he currently serves on its executive committee, he warned, "I may not continue."

In 2018 Brock donated $1,000 to the party, but he has now closed his checkbook. "If I did give this year, it would be for a designated purpose," he said. The senator has two in mind: "First, to hire an independent accountant. Two, to support [candidate] recruitment."

An outside accountant seems ... drastic. When asked why, Brock replied, "Because I have concern about the professionalism of the operation."

Yikes.

Brock is not usually the kind to air dirty laundry. But he's a straight shooter, he's had enough, and he's not the only one.

"After the last election, I viewed the party apparatus as one would a sports team, in need of a change in leadership and direction," said Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia). Aside from Gov. Phil Scott's reelection, 2018 was a disaster for Vermont Republicans. They lost 10 seats in the House, giving the Democrats and Progressives a combined supermajority. They even lost a Senate seat in Rutland County, usually safe ground for the VTGOP.

Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin) was recently named to the party's executive committee — and learned that each member was expected to donate $1,000. He flatly refused. "Quite frankly, I'd need to see an effective plan," he said. "If there's no plan, it's hard to make donors feel confidence."

Parent has been part of a successful party effort in Franklin County that in recent years has bucked the trend of Republican losses elsewhere in Vermont. "The 2018 results speak for themselves," he said of the statewide outcome. "The party doubled down on an unsuccessful strategy."

To be fair, it was a bad year for the GOP nationwide. But many top Republicans say recruitment failures and ineffective messaging made the Vermont results worse than they could have been. Lawmakers such as Parent, Scott and Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) won with a broad appeal, while the party itself leaned heavily on negative messages after the example of President Donald Trump.

The state party's top officials are, by and large, Trump Republicans — from chair Deb Billado to national committee members Jay Shepard and Suzanne Butterfield to most of the state party committee. They talk about being a big-tent party, but they have a blind spot when it comes to the effectiveness of Trump-style rhetoric in Vermont.

"Those of us who've been elected and reelected know you have to go beyond the party base to achieve your objective," Benning said. That includes, he added, appealing to "Vermonters in the middle and disenfranchised Democrats."

Neale Lunderville is a former executive director of the party and was a fixture in the administration of Republican governor Jim Douglas. "Parties exist to elect people," he said. "Parties do best when they are focused on electing folks. They start to lose traction when they focus on ideology."

Rep. Rob LaClair (R-Barre Town), the deputy minority leader in the House, called for a pragmatic approach. "Our party has felt that it can change public opinion," he said. "We need to start listening and reflecting what Vermonters believe."

Longtime Republican donor and unabashed conservative Skip Vallee is on vacation out of state, but he took the time to weigh in via email. "People make too much of the party as some guardian of ideology," he wrote. "How about becoming the 'guardian of recruitment for house candidates?'"

Former House minority leader Don Turner, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018, has pledged to support party leaders. But he acknowledged that he's been asked by "lots of people" to challenge Billado when she's up for reelection this fall. He has refused, but it's more about his own plans than loyalty. Turner is leaving the door open to another statewide run, and he believes a stint as party chair "wouldn't be helpful [to a candidacy]," Turner said. "If I knew I was never running for office again, I'd take it on in a heartbeat. I think I can do the job."

Billado's response to all of this criticism? "No comment."

Scott is diplomatic, but you can read between the lines. "I have my views. They're not always in line with the party," he said at a March 28 press conference. "I believe that to survive two gubernatorial elections and receive the most votes, I must be doing something right." He could have also cited an unbroken string of victories dating back to his first run for Senate in 2000, fueled by his cross-party appeal.

The party's ideological purity could be seen in its choice of a featured speaker for its April 5 fundraiser: ultra-conservative columnist Star Parker. Scott called her appearance "not helpful to the state" and said he would not be attending.

A visual examination of the approximately 100 who did attend revealed only one lawmaker: Rep. Marianna Gamache (R-Swanton). There are 49 Republicans in the legislature. That's a stunningly poor showing for a major event.

Party leaders allowed press access during the cocktail hour but not for Parker's speech, so only paid attendees heard her message. But her views are easily discovered online. Parker doesn't believe in evolution and argues that birth control and divorce are forbidden by the Bible. She equates abortion with slavery as "crimes against humanity" and has said the Confederate flag and the LGBTQ rainbow flag "represent the exact same thing."

Yeah, probably not the best messenger for Vermonters. But she's an ideological fit with the GOP leadership, if the rhetoric at a March 30 Republican State Committee meeting is any guide. At the Montpelier gathering, far-right remarks were greeted warmly.

Shepard gave a thoroughly Trumpian address. "The president is doing a great job of calling out the wackos," he said. "We need to start doing the same in Vermont." As for the national Democrats' Green New Deal plan, "They want to stop cows from farting."

Laughter ensued.

"I've seen tens of thousands of apartments being built in Chittenden County," Billado said from the podium. This dystopian array of human Habitrails is, in her telling, part of "a master plan" to depopulate the countryside. This sounded like a right-wing conspiracy theory that posits a United Nations plot to relocate Americans into planned communities. If anyone in the room thought that was crazy, they didn't speak up.

Former state representative Tom Koch reported that he'd undergone two knee replacements. "Bit by bit, they're going to replace all of me," he said. "When they get to the brain transplant, I hope I get a Republican brain."

Someone from the audience replied, "Sorry, Tom, you'll probably get a Democratic brain because they've hardly been used."

Rimshot.

In pitching for donations, Billado got a little loose with the facts. "The entire executive committee voted to contribute $1,000 each to the party," she said. "I hope everyone here can commit to supporting us."

No mention of Brock and Parent. Secretary of Civil and Military Affairs Brittney Wilson, Scott's representative on the panel, said she hasn't donated either. "The ask was not just financial," Wilson said. "There are other forms of support."

When told of Billado's remark to the state committee, Wilson said, "There appears to have been a bit of miscommunication." Yep.

Vermont Republicans do have a bright spot on the horizon. Former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker will speak at another party fundraiser on May 30, time and location to be determined. Walker is more conservative than Phil Scott, but he's a credible national figure. And Scott is inclined to attend — if the party agrees to open the event to the press.

"We need to show that we're a welcoming party," Wilson said. "If it were to be completely closed, that would be a deal breaker."

Billado and VTGOP executive director Jack Moulton prefer to keep the press out, although neither could explain their policy.

"I don't know if we've always closed [fundraisers] to the press," Billado said in a Monday phone interview from party headquarters. "I don't get involved in that."

Remind me: Who's in charge here?

Billado consulted Moulton, then offered, "We haven't allowed the press since Jack started here."

Um. That was little more than one year ago. Hard to believe that Moulton is the authority on state party tradition.

The Vermont Republican Party has embarked, consciously or not, on a steady course of self-purification. Trump-style conservatives rule the roost, to the detriment of their candidates' electability. For more than a half century, from Bob Stafford, Jim Jeffords and Dick Snelling to Jim Douglas and Phil Scott, the secret to a Republican politician's success in Vermont has been winning support across the political spectrum. If party leaders are too immersed in Trumpism to realize that, the VTGOP could be in for a lengthy stay in political purgatory.

Media Notes

A familiar face has returned to Vermonters' TV screens. Fran Stoddard, former host of Vermont Public Television's "Profile" series, is the new host of "Across the Fence," a daily show produced by University of Vermont Extension and broadcast on WCAX-TV.

Stoddard succeeds former WCAX news anchor and Vermont Association of Broadcasters Hall of Famer Judy Simpson, who retired in January.

"We were looking for a seasoned veteran broadcaster," said producer Will Mikell. "It was a no-brainer to give [Stoddard] a call, and it was great that she said 'yes.'"

Stoddard has spent the past five years working for the Orton Family Foundation, the nonprofit created by the owners of the Vermont Country Store. It works to foster the health of small cities and towns across America. "The work opened my eyes to rural America and its needs," Stoddard said. "There's a strong connection to 'Across the Fence.'"

The program can be seen weekdays at 12:10 on the WCAX midday news.

Meanwhile, Burlington Free Press reporter Nicole DeSmet took to Twitter last Friday to announce her imminent departure. "Next week will be my last at the Burlington Free Press," she wrote. "I've decided to make a change and see what comes." She declined requests for an interview.

"For the past three years, Nicole has demonstrated a keen nose for news," wrote Free Press executive editor Emilie Stigliani in an email. "She has written some damn good stories."

The paper also recently lost digital news editor Evan Weiss. His wife is finishing medical school at the University of Vermont and is off to a residency program in California. He's following, as one might expect. 

Stigliani said she expects to replace both DeSmet and Weiss.

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