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Green Old Party

Recalling Vermont Republicans' glory days


Republicans in Vermont, more so than those in any other state, can lay claim to membership in a truly Grand Old Party.

From today's perspective, however, that might seem a mocking mistitle. For despite the electoral successes of Richard Snelling and James Jeffords in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and notwithstanding James Douglas' victory last year, the Vermont GOP has been in a steady -- sometimes steep -- decline for the past four decades. The party has come to resemble an oldies act that can occasionally draw a crowd even though it has long since sunk from superstar status.

But, oh, what a remarkable run it had. The Republican Party monopolized Vermont politics for more than a century. During its time on top from 1854 until 1958, the GOP never lost a statewide election, and damn few local ones.

Those long glory days are recalled in The Star That Set, a new book by Samuel Hand, emeritus professor of history at the University of Vermont. Hand's work, published by Lexington Books, traces the rise and ascendancy of Vermont Republican-ism by chronicling the political events and intra-party intrigues of that era. But the book only sketchily depicts the big picture. Hand seldom attempts to examine the reasons why the Vermont GOP remained so dominant for so long.

That's a shame, because the hints Hand does drop suggest that much can be learned about the state itself by studying the character of its most historically important political institution. The defining features of Vermont Republicanism are at the core of the state's distinctive culture, and they persist into the present day.

Tolerance was the virtue that most accounted for the newly formed Republican Party's success in mid-19th century Vermont. Slavery was the dominant political issue of the time, and the state was ardently abolitionist. Most Green Mountain voters quickly and firmly identified with the party that was established to prevent the extension of slavery into the western territories.

Vermont's commitment to the antislavery cause ran broadly and deeply, with one in every five male residents serving in the Union army during the Civil War. "Vermont's casualty rates were among the highest of any northern state, leaving mourners in virtually every town and family," Hand writes.

Because politics had taken on a life-or-death complexion, the electorate's sentiments were tinged with strong emotions. The pro-slavery Democratic Party came to be regarded in Vermont as not just ideologically misguided but downright disloyal. Eager to erase that stigma, many Democratic leaders abandoned their party and enlisted in the Republicans' ranks, Hand recounts.

But it wasn't only altruism that spurred the rapid growth of the Vermont Republican Party. Economic self-interest played a major role as well. In the 1840s, the Democrats sharply reduced the tariff on wool that protected American sheep farmers from foreign competition. In a state where sheep outnumbered humans six to one, the Democratic tariff cuts proved economically ruinous. "The Republican Party's protectionist policies on agriculture were at least as important in Vermont as its anti-slavery stance, and more so after the Civil War," says state archivist Gregory Sanford, who collaborated on Hand's book.

The two strands that define Vermont Republicanism -- social liberalism and economic conservatism -- may thus be seen as having been present at the party's creation. And those themes continue to resonate even among younger Repub-licans. Jim Barnett, the 27-year-old chairman of the state GOP, cites fellow Barre native Deane Davis as his chief political role model. Davis' tenure as governor from 1968 to 1972 is remembered mainly for his sponsorship of Act 250. Barnett says he admires Davis as "a conservative who recognized Vermont's uniqueness as a place."

Tactical smarts were just as crucial as policy platforms in extending the Republican Party's hegemony well into the 20th century. In the absence of a viable opposition, political disagreements and clashing personal ambitions had to be played out entirely within the GOP. If the Republicans had not been adept at managing these internal contradictions, the party would have splintered and become too weak to prevent a Democratic upsurge.

Republican primary elections in Vermont could be fiercely fought affairs, but the party invariably coalesced behind its nominees. The GOP also practiced the principles of tolerance and diversity within its own ranks. No one was excommunicated from the party for reasons of doctrinal heresy. "Vermont Republicans really did build the proverbial big tent," Sanford says. He cites the cases of George Aiken and Warren Austin who held Vermont's two U.S. Senate seats in the first half of the 1940s. "Aiken gave voice to a liberal Republican viewpoint on social programs but was seen as almost an isolationist," Sanford notes. "Austin opposed the whole New Deal but was an internationalist."

Strict observance of an unwritten "Mountain Rule" helped ensure that peace was kept within the party. For many years, statewide offices were regularly alternated between Republican nominees from the western and eastern sides of the Green Mountains. Geographic rivalries were thus muted during the decades when an underdeveloped state transportation network could have fostered the rise of competing power centers.

And success bred success. The Vermont Republican Party consistently attracted the most skillful candidates because there was no feasible alternative for anyone eager to enter public service. "The absence of a visible Democratic organization in so many towns discouraged all but the most utopian visionaries" from seeking office without Republican approval, Hand points out.

A few less appealing factors also contributed to the GOP's ability to sustain its political control.

The Democrats remained a feeble force in Vermont not only because of the party's legacy on slavery and tariffs. Ethnic homogeneity, small-town clannishness and a lack of economic dynamism also helped maintain Vermont as a one-party state for an unhealthfully long period.

"There's a heavy Protestant tradition in Vermont," observes UVM political scientist Garrison Nelson. "In fact, it's the most Protestant of the six New England states." And in Vermont the Republican Party was a Protestant party, leaving the state's Irish Catholic minority to enroll as Democrats. So, in addition to siding with the GOP on political issues, the Yankee yeomen of Vermont might identify as Republicans for sectarian reasons.

The GOP was also organized around local family dynasties that remain a familiar feature in rural Vermont. The party had a quasi-feudal aspect, with widespread economic dependence on a few lords of industry often translating into allegiance to a specified political organization. Proctor (marble), Fairbanks (scales), Prouty (lumber), Smith (railroads) and Dewey (insurance) were names inscribed among the Republican elite for generation upon generation, Hand observes. "The most pre-eminent families owned the largest industries and contributed so bountifully to Vermont's business and political leadership that the Republican hierarchy resembled a cousins' club," he writes.

Class conflict never threatened to unsettle Vermont politics, Nelson observes. Differences in income were generally small in a state with few affluent residents. As a result, Democratic appeals to working-class interests failed to find a large receptive audience in Vermont.

Social and cultural stasis was the norm in a state that didn't grow and had no communities worthy of the term "city." Vermont was a backwater during most of the century that the Republican Party reigned unchallenged. Because its agrarian economy promised a life of hard labor and little hope of prosperity, thousands of Ver-mont's young people fled the state in search of opportunity. The population thus advanced in age but not in size, causing the state to become increasingly set in its ways and insulated from outside influences.

Burlington and the few other centers of Democratic strength were meanwhile denied a proportional measure of political power in the State Legislature through a one-town/one-vote system of representation. From the time it became a state until 1965, Vermont apportioned seats in its House equally among its towns, regardless of their population. As a result, Burlington had the same number of State Representatives (one) as did tiny Buels Gore.

Nothing in the physical world -- not even the Vermont Republican Party -- is exempt from the law of entropy. Pressures from within and without slowly weakened an organization that had enjoyed complete control longer than any other state's GOP.

Internal divisions were primarily responsible for the party's first statewide electoral loss in 104 years. William Meyer, a Democrat, won the 1958 election for the U.S. House of Representatives largely because the Republicans had nominated an unimpressive candidate who had collected only 30 percent of the vote in the GOP primary. Hand said in an interview that he regards the 1958 outcome as an "aberration" in that the then-vacant U.S. House seat was not so much won by the Democrats as lost by the Republicans.

But other forces were also at work that can now be seen as harbingers of a coming upheaval in Vermont politics. Garrison Nelson points out that the 1958 mid-term elections brought Demo-cratic successes nationwide. Vermont then had ceased to be entirely immune from broad political trends -- a shift that likely reflected the state's growing connectedness to the rest of the country through telecommunications and an improving transportation network. Hand also cites the role organized labor played in Meyer's victory over a Republican running on a party platform hostile to trade unions.

A more decisive break with Republican rule came four years later when Phil Hoff was elected governor. The influx of liberal-minded flatlanders that would fundamentally transform Vermont was little more than a trickle in 1962, the year of Hoff's victory, so demographic trends contributed little to this epochal event.

More germane was Hoff's Protestantism, which may have seemed reassuring to Vermonters put off by the mainly Catholic composition of the Democratic Party. Then, too, the taboo against papist politicians in high office had been broken two years earlier with John Kennedy's election as president. And on the campaign trail, the handsome Hoff was often described as Kennedyesque, suggesting that some of the president's charisma had rubbed off on the dashing young Vermonter.

Another powerful blow fell on the Vermont Republican Party in 1964 when GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater failed to carry the state. Until then, Vermont had faithfully handed the Republican nominee its handful of electoral votes every four years, even when almost every other state in the Union was voting Democratic. Goldwater's poor showing also dragged down several GOP candidates for statewide offices in Vermont.

The 1964 elections highlighted an ideological split between the state and national Republican parties that is once again particularly pronounced today. The national GOP's growing conservatism on social and cultural issues caused many typically moderate Vermont Republicans to reassess their party allegiance, says Middlebury College political scientist Eric Davis.

Harder-right conservatives may have been energized by the victories of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, but that brand of Republicanism has little in common with the Vermont variety, Davis points out. As a result, Vermonters who might once have voted straight Republican became more likely to split their tickets, thereby eroding the base of the state GOP.

The shift away from Republican rule had become unstoppable by the mid-1960s, but in Hand's reckoning 1974 was the year when the GOP star finally set in Vermont. In that Water-gate-driven election, Democrats won most of the statewide contests.

And according to Garrison Nelson, it is only in recent years that the Vermont Republican Party reached its absolute nadir, at least in symbolic terms. He says the first part of a two-stage disaster occurred in 1998, when dairy farmer-turned-movie actor Fred Tuttle became the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate. A substantial number of Vermonters had decided to treat the Republican primary as a joke. Then, in 2001, the state GOP lost its last big-foot officeholder with James Jeffords' abandonment of the party under whose banner he had won elections for more than 30 years.

In 2002, however, the Republicans managed to stage a mini-comeback -- albeit with the help of a split left -- electing Jim Douglas as governor and giving the party a majority of seats in the Vermont House. Does that mean a GOP revival is underway in Vermont?

Probably not, says Eric Davis. The factors that led to the party's fall have not vanished, he notes, adding that the Republicans still lack the resources and the electoral base to wage several successful campaigns simultaneously. The GOP would do well to focus in 2004 on re-electing Douglas and on clinging to its edge in the House, Davis suggests.

Vermont Republicans must also decide whether to remain true to their own traditions or to align with the much more conservative national party of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The temptation to move right could prove powerful, Nelson says, since "there's definitely money available for a GOP resurgence in Vermont -- if the Republicans adopt the national party agenda." But that could prove to be a fatal miscalculation, he adds. History shows, says Nelson, that Republicans succeed in Vermont to the degree that they remain true to their party's origins.