Not two years after Vermont’s Republican governor Jim Douglas left office, the party he led through four terms is on the ropes.
Already beset by demographic shifts that favor its opponents, the Vermont Republican Party now faces structural problems that could limit its ability to counter the growing dominance of Vermont Democrats. The state GOP’s fundraising is anemic, its professional staff is nonexistent, and its candidate-recruitment efforts have stalled out.
While much attention has been paid to the foundering efforts of the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee, Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin), the biggest blow to the party’s fortunes could be further losses in the legislature. With 10 of 48 House Republicans retiring, even party leaders concede they’ll be lucky if they maintain their already depleted numbers in the 150-member body.
“We wanted to have a lot more candidates than we ended up recruiting,” says House minority leader Don Turner (R-Milton). “It is discouraging. We already have a super-minority — and we need balance. We gotta have balance in Montpelier.”
Up and down the ballot, Republicans are struggling against the tide of an electorate that has grown more liberal and Chittenden County-centered over the past few decades. Adding to the challenge is the trio of popular liberals at the top of the ballot this year — President Barack Obama, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Peter Shumlin — not to mention the rightward tilt of Republican rhetoric outside Vermont.
Even more glaring are the behind-the-scenes disparities. While Vermont Democrats have professionalized into a year-round political operation, the state GOP lost its sole paid staffer last March. And with the departure of Douglas, his loyal cadre of battle-hardened Republican operatives has mostly quit state politics. That leaves a handful of volunteers from the party’s activist wing running the show.
This year, Republicans failed for the third election cycle in a row to muster a single credible congressional candidate. The party let first-term Democratic Secretary of State Jim Condos go unchallenged and let twice-failed U.S. Senate candidate Jack McMullen take on one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable candidates: Attorney General Bill Sorrell.
Democrats, meanwhile, have reached a partial détente with the Vermont Progressive Party, which is shifting its focus toward growing its ranks in the legislature. Rather than dividing the left-leaning vote in statewide races, the two parties this year collaborated on the candidacies of their lieutenant governor and state auditor nominees — and kept a Progressive candidate out of the gubernatorial race.
This confluence of circumstances has some Republicans despairing.
“This will be the year when the Vermont Republican Party truly becomes irrelevant,” says one elected Republican who was reluctant to voice such concerns on the record.
Long odds aside, it’s not over for the party that dominated Vermont politics for more than a century. The Vermont GOP may be down but it’s not out.
Propping up its faltering central apparatus is a conservative super PAC led by an experienced Republican operative and funded by a generous donor with deep pockets. Acting as a sort of shadow party, the group, Vermonters First, has spent more than half a million dollars on a paid media strategy focused on two down-ticket Republicans and 41 legislative candidates. Its efforts have helped Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton mount a surprisingly strong challenge against incumbent Democrat Beth Pearce in the race for state treasurer.
Additionally, the party has at least two promising statewide candidates with bipartisan appeal in incumbent Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Sen. Vince Illuzzi (Essex-Orleans), who is running for state auditor.
“There’s still a few of us left around that are gonna fight like hell,” says Jack Lindley, the irascible chairman of the Vermont Republican Party.
“I’m not convinced we aren’t going to win up and down. And all my Democratic friends who think their boy Barack Obama is going to carry the day, well, he’s going to be lucky if he carries Vermont given the situation he’s in.”
Vermont was a different place during Lindley’s first stint as state GOP chairman, from 1978 through 1981. In the previous 120 years, the state had elected just two Democratic governors and a single U.S. senator: a young prosecutor named Patrick Leahy.
The pace of politics has also changed, Lindley notes.
“Life is sped up. We’ve moved from a little bit of a trot to a full dead run,” he says. “It’s all generated by the communications we have now, like the Twitter and the Facebook and the computer. People want to be 24/7. It’s kind of like moving from horse and buggy to the automobile.”
A Capitol Hill staffer in the late 1960s and a veteran of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, Lindley walked away from politics at the dawn of the Clinton era to focus on his Burlington insurance business. But when state party chairwoman Pat McDonald stepped down last January, Lindley was coaxed back into the ring.
“I said, ‘I have five sons and only one of them has been able to stay in Vermont,’” Lindley says. “I’m going to do my damnedest to get this straightened around to make sure the next generation has a chance to be successful.”
A month after Lindley took over, executive director Mike Bertrand left his post amid speculation that the state party couldn’t afford to pay his salary. In perhaps the most consequential decision of his tenure, Lindley opted not to replace Bertrand, even as statewide and presidential elections loomed.
“Republicans traditionally have been a volunteer organization,” he explains. “I guess back in history we moved over to try to match the number of paid staff and paid chairmen. We’re not in that game anymore. That arms race is over.”
Lindley has focused instead on opening local offices in Essex, Montpelier, Rutland, St. Albans, Springfield and St. Johnsbury, where volunteers convene to make phone calls and organize door-knocking efforts.
What Lindley lacks in party machinery, he makes up for with his trademark over-the-top rhetoric. In September, for instance, Lindley sent out a fundraising solicitation appearing to blame a single torn Brock for Governor lawn sign in Williston on Shumlin’s “arrogance of power.” Conceding in an interview that he hadn’t a lick of proof that Shumlin’s campaign was behind the vandalism, Lindley declined to withdraw the charge.
“Obviously the command and control is the guy running for governor,” he said at the time. “And his staff and his reelection campaign. I’m really disappointed in them.”
Lindley’s bombastic style rubs some in the Republican Party the wrong way.
“He’s got a big mouth, but outside of that, what’s he got?” asks retiring state Rep. Adam Howard (R-Cambridge). “His vitriol is just bone-chilling when I hear it. And I just wonder who would be motivated to be part of his program.”
Late last year, Lindley’s Democratic counterpart, Jake Perkinson, opened the party’s election-year headquarters in Burlington several months earlier than usual. With fellow Democratic operative Miro Weinberger running for mayor of Burlington in March, Perkinson sensed “an excellent opportunity to do a test run” of the party’s organizational capabilities eight months before the November election.
In a remarkable departure from precedent, the Vermont Democratic Party was all over the city election, deploying its field, fundraising and communications staff to take back city hall. It worked. Weinberger decimated Republican city councilor and state Rep. Kurt Wright by a lopsided margin of 58 to 37 in an election many observers expected to be a nail-biter.
“We wanted to kick the tires on the tools we have,” Perkinson said just days after the March election. “So I really did view it as an invaluable opportunity to figure out where any weaknesses might be.”
A Philadelphia native and Vermont Law School graduate, the 42-year-old Democratic Party chairman is a study in intensity. Perkinson has juggled careers in securities law, real estate and political consulting — and though his role as party chairman is unpaid, he appears to treat it as yet another full-time job.
If Lindley believes in a volunteer party, Perkinson believes in a professional, year-round campaign apparatus. The party’s permanent staff of four ballooned this summer to 16 — including 11 field-workers stationed at the Democrats’ nine regional offices.
“A lot of what the parties do, we never see,” says Chris Graff, a former Associated Press Montpelier bureau chief who now works for National Life. “But the last few election cycles have shown that the Democrats’ coordinated campaign is stronger than the Republicans’ campaign.”
Even some Republicans agree with that assessment.
“The Democrats have just beat the Republicans on that for the last few cycles,” says state Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland). “I would say the last year the Republicans had a really, really good get-out-the-vote effort was 2000.”
Perkinson’s goal this cycle is to consolidate the party’s organizational strengths by improving its chief asset: its voter file. “It can be a big waste of money and resources if you don’t know who you’re talking to,” says VDP executive director Julia Barnes.
To that end, Barnes says the Democrats have already identified 30,000 additional voters this cycle and hope to ID another 20,000 by Election Day. That will bring their file to 150,000 identified voters the party can selectively target during its four-day get-out-the-vote sprint in November.
In Perkinson’s view, a strong data and field program can really make the difference in down-ticket races in which neither candidate is well known to voters. It will be essential to Pearce — the state treasurer is experiencing her first campaign after being appointed to the post in January 2011 — and to Democratic and Progressive candidates Cassandra Gekas and Doug Hoffer, who are running for lieutenant governor and state auditor, respectively.
“I think you would see a much less robust campaign for the down-ticket campaigns without the assistance of the Democratic Party,” Perkinson says. “We do provide a lot of value to those. It’s our job.”
The Shadow Party
While Perkinson and the Democratic Party worked to elect Weinberger last winter, Republican political operative Tayt Brooks managed the campaign of Weinberger’s opponent, Kurt Wright. A former lobbyist and commissioner of economic, housing and community development in the Douglas administration, Brooks twice served as executive director of the Vermont Republican Party.
This September, Brooks reemerged as treasurer, consultant and spokesman for a mysterious new super PAC called Vermonters First, which has in essence become a shadow Republican Party — spending heavily on television, direct mail, online advertising and robocalls.
Thanks to the 2010 Citizens United decision and a slew of federal and state rulings since, groups like Vermonters First are free to raise and spend unlimited sums — so long as they don’t coordinate expenditures with political candidates. Soon after forming, Brooks’ group spent $100,000 on a trio of television advertisements supporting Wilton and Illuzzi and slamming Democrats’ health care plan. At first, Brooks declined to reveal who was bankrolling the entity, but subsequent campaign finance filings have shown that a Burlington resident named Lenore Broughton has donated all but $900 of the $685,000 raised as of Monday (see companion article).
In the last few weeks, the role of Vermonters First has drastically expanded. It has spent at least $265,000 on TV ads, $200,000 on direct mail, $17,500 on polling and $2000 on robocalls.
To put that in perspective: In the first eight months of this year, the Vermont Republican Party spent $99,000, while Vermont Democrats spent $320,00. In the past six weeks, Vermonters First has dropped $561,000.
“You get a sense of an octopus of an operation that we don’t even really know about,” says Graff.
To some Republicans, Vermonters First is doing the party a great service by swooping in and performing nearly all of its traditional functions — while sending the bill to a single donor.
“Tayt’s doing everything the party should be doing,” says one top Republican.
The underfunded Brock campaign is benefiting, too, even though Vermonters First has yet to explicitly back the gubernatorial candidate. According to Brock’s de facto campaign manager, Darcie Johnson, the campaign was poised to mail out absentee-ballot request forms when it realized the independent super PAC had already gotten the job done.
“We pulled back because we didn’t need to duplicate an effort that was already going on,” she says. “We just shifted those resources.”
But not everyone is thrilled that Brooks and Broughton have crashed the party — least of all Lindley.
“I think [super PACs] are specifically designed to run parties out of business,” he says. “PACs are a function of individuals and whatever their particular bent in life is. Parties with volunteers are a broad-based operation.”
Skip Vallee, who served as a major fundraiser for former president George W. Bush and the Vermont Republican Party, agrees.
“I think it is helpful for any entity that is a political force to try to get maximum buy-in financially and otherwise from a broad base of people,” says Vallee, a former ambassador to Slovakia. “To the extent that the political message is dominated by people who have congregated around the source of money, I think that’s bad for the party.”
Vermonters First’s unexpected avalanche of ads could well make the difference in the race for state treasurer, which is being contested by two little-known candidates running their first statewide races. But in the hyper-local contests that will determine control of the legislature, what counts is candidate recruiting, community engagement and door knocking.
“If I was going to bet on a ground game versus an air war, I would always bet on a ground game,” says House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morrisville), who leads a caucus of 94 Democrats.
Despite the air support from Vermonters First, observers on both sides of the aisle believe Republicans could dip below the paltry 48 House seats they currently control.
In the Senate, where Republicans hold just eight of 30 seats, they are bullish on their prospects in Franklin County but could fight to a draw for the four seats spread across the Northeast Kingdom counties of Essex, Orleans and Caledonia.
“I don’t think there will be a sea change, but we’re hopeful we’ll pick up one seat,” says Mullin, the Rutland senator.
More and more, the Vermont GOP has retrenched to regional pockets of support — mostly in Rutland County and the far north. As one elected Republican notes, come January, only three House Republicans will hail from south of Rutland.
Turner, the House Republican leader, blames retirements and recruiting struggles. The caucus lost 10 incumbents, including rising stars such as the 38-year-old Rep. Howard and the 36-year-old Rep. Oliver Olsen of Jamaica.
“We were hoping to have more candidates, but at the end of the day, we have 75 people running. I would say 65 are electable,” Turner says.
The minority leader says he feels “very confident” about the chances of 30 of those candidates, while another 10 to 12 are “solid.” In a bit of a mixed blessing, he says he’s communicated with five people “who chose to run as independents because they didn’t think they had a viable chance running as a Republican.”
He adds, “It’s very troubling to me to have candidates feel that way. But it’s a reality.”
Howard, who believes the House will lose Republican seats this year, says he understands the reluctance of candidates to run under the GOP label.
“Who wants to be recruited by a party that has some of this baggage?” he asks. “I know a ton of people who share my values but don’t want to call themselves Republicans. How are you gonna get them to run as Republicans?”
House Democrats are also facing 10 retirements, but they have recruited 111 candidates. The ace in their hole, says Smith, is Vermont Democratic House Campaign director Nick Charyk, who works year-round to support incumbent Democrats with constituent correspondence, recruit new prospects and provide candidates with on-the-ground support. House Republicans, meanwhile, have no paid staff.
Still, Charyk speaks cautiously of his candidates’ chances, noting that in 2010, nine Democratic House candidates won by fewer than 100 votes — and two of them won by a single vote.
The Vermont Progressive Party, meanwhile, is squarely focused on building its numbers in the legislature — particularly in the House. Like the Democrats, they count on a full-time staffer, the party’s executive director Morgan Daybell, to provide support to their candidates.
The Progs’ numbers are small — four of five incumbent House members are running for another term — but the party is eyeing seven pickup opportunities in Burlington’s Old North End, Franklin County, Lowell and elsewhere.
On the Senate side, 12-year Progressive House veteran David Zuckerman won a slot on the Democratic slate in Chittenden County’s crowded, six-member district. If elected, he would join fellow Progressive/Democratic hybrids Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) in the upper chamber.
“Our numbers are getting close to the Republicans in the Senate,” says state Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), with a hint of exaggeration. “If we could take over the Republicans as the opposition party, boy, would that be a fascinating political discussion.”
The Pendulum’s Swing
This isn’t the first time Republicans’ electoral prospects have looked dim. In his political memoir, Dateline Vermont, Graff recounts a speech he gave in 2001, not long after then-governor Howard Dean cruised to reelection over conservative Republican Ruth Dwyer. Asked by an audience member if he could think of a single Vermont Republican who could take the governorship, Graff said he could not.
The party had so marginalized itself following fierce fights over Act 60 and civil unions, Graff writes, “that I thought years would pass before the party regained credibility with the broad middle that decides elections.”
Minutes after Graff returned to his office, Douglas called to razz him about the comment. Two years later, Douglas took back the governorship.
Vermont’s political pendulum tends to swing in both directions. Since 1961, every new governor has hailed from a different party than the one before. If Shumlin sets his sights on higher office or loses his luster after a few terms, a restive electorate might be ready for a Republican alternative.
“When there’s an open seat, Republicans and Democrats will fight to the finish,” Graff notes.
The question, however, is whether the traditional calculus has shifted as Vermont has steadily grown more liberal — and the national Republican Party has grown stridently conservative. Olsen suggests “the biggest impediment” to the state party’s chances is negative perceptions of the national GOP.
“I think it’s a reality that the state has moved very definitely to the left,” says Neale Lunderville, who served as administration secretary and transportation secretary in the Douglas administration. “The party has to evolve with the times. We can’t be the party of the 1980s and 1990s.”
Like many younger Vermont Republicans, Lunderville believes that the party’s future success hinges upon presenting itself as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
“I think the party needs to be much more inclusive and needs to present a more moderate view on the social issues,” Olsen echoes. “It needs to put a renewed focus into its greatest asset: its ability to challenge the fiscal policies and fiscal direction in which the majority party is going.”
Howard, who says all of his friends are Democrats, believes for the party to succeed “it must embrace the libertarian component of the party.”
He and other moderates see Scott and Illuzzi as the kind of low-key, bipartisan Republicans who can still succeed in Vermont. In the Senate, Scott voted in favor of gay marriage and calls himself pro-choice, with certain exceptions. Illuzzi, meanwhile, staked out a role in the Senate as a champion of the working class and has received backing from all but one major labor union in his race for auditor.
“The Republican brand is in large part identified by the action in Washington,” says Illuzzi, who briefly flirted with running as an independent. “And I, in particular, reel at some of the comments that are made. You know the 47 percent comment? I represent the 47 percent.”
To illustrate his differences with the national party, Illuzzi tweeted last month that he hails from the party of “Aiken, not Akin,” distinguishing monopoly-busting former Vermont governor George Aiken from Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin of “legitimate rape” fame.
Of course, not everybody feels that the Republican Party should move to the left — particularly within the activist ranks of the state party apparatus.
Rev. Craig Benson, an outspoken anti-gay-marriage activist who chaired the state’s delegation to the Republican National Convention this year, calls the idea that Republicans should hew to the center “a whiny argument.”
“We’re seeing something that’s been a historic shift over 40 years, but I think the shift has been pushed too far by Democrats and Progressives, and that will cause a fissure,” he says. “I think we have an opportunity to pick folks up. We just have to run good candidates.”
While Mullin believes Republicans must run better, smarter campaigns, he does not think the party should mimic the Democrats.
“I think we have to stand up and start defending why we are Republicans and stop Democrats from co-opting it and making it sound like it’s a bad thing,” he says. “How does that help if you just become them?”
As time goes on, Mullin contends, Democrats will have to answer for the decisions they make as Montpelier’s party in power.
“Certainly the Democrats can’t blame it on Jim Douglas or George Bush. They own it,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a pendulum swing, because I don’t think you can continue down the path of promising everything to everyone. At some point you have to deliver. And you can’t deliver everything. The day of reckoning is going to come.”