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If there were a year in recent memory for the Vermont Republican Party to make a splash at the polls, this was it.
Historically, the first midterm after the election of a president offers the opposite party an electoral advantage. With Democratic President Joe Biden in the White House, political observers across the country predicted a “red wave” at the polls.
Former President Donald Trump, whom Vermonters voted against by the highest margin in the country in 2020, did not lead the Republican ticket this year. Instead, the top-ranking Republican on the ballot was Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who is polled as America’s second-most popular governor and easily won his reelection by a 71-24 margin.
A historic number of open seats were available up and down the ballot. Most notably, thanks to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s upcoming retirement after nearly five decades in Washington, Vermont this year saw its first open congressional races since 2006.
But by their own account, Republicans failed to seize the opportunity.
Out of eight statewide races, six of which were open, Scott was the only Republican victor. Republicans lost five seats in the state House, delivering Democrats a record-breaking supermajority that, in theory, could easily override Scott’s vetoes. And in the state Senate, Democrats and Progressives held onto their 23-seat supermajority.
Vermont does not have party registration for voters, but according to the Pew Research Center, nearly 30% of Vermonters self-identified as Republicans when surveyed in 2014. Pointing to that number, outgoing state Sen. Corey Parent, R-Franklin, concluded, “A typical Republican, like a no-name Republican, statewide is going to poll in like the low 30s.”
“When a Republican loses but gets into the 40%, they’re outperforming. They’re winning their fair share of moderates and Democrats coming over,” Parent continued. “So to get to the 50% is extremely difficult.”
Wide margins in statewide contests
After Scott, the next highest performing Republican statewide candidate of Election Day was state Sen. Joe Benning of Caledonia in his bid for lieutenant governor, garnering roughly 118,000 votes to Progressive/Democrat David Zuckerman’s 149,000. At 54-43, it was the closest statewide contest of the night.
Of the remaining statewide Republican candidates, none won more than 35% of the vote. On Friday, Vermont Republican Party Chair Paul Dame told VTDigger that the GOP’s statewide candidates, with the exception of Benning, “did about what we would expect.”
The two Republican nominees for U.S. Congress — U.S. Senate candidate Gerald Malloy and U.S. House candidate Liam Madden — did not even cross the 30% threshold. Democratic U.S. Sen.-elect Peter Welch defeated Malloy 68-28, and U.S. Rep.-elect Becca Balint defeated Madden 63-28. Welch had name recognition on his side, having represented Vermont in the U.S. House for 15 years, but this year marked Balint’s first statewide contest. (When he first won the same seat in 2006, by comparison, Welch won by a tighter but still comfortable 53-45 margin.)
It’s not as if GOP organizers deem the region a lost cause. The national party apparatus poured its organizational might — and dollars — into numerous congressional elections throughout New England this year, despite its reputation as a Democratic stronghold. In historically blue districts in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Republican candidates gave Democrats runs for their money, but ultimately were defeated.
In Vermont’s GOP primary, former U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan attracted early attention from Republican power players in her bid for the U.S. Senate nomination. Gov. Scott endorsed her, and both U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., headlined D.C. fundraisers for her.
The Value In Electing Women Political Action Committee, or VIEW PAC, hosted the second Nolan fundraiser in July. Executive director Julie Conway told VTDigger at the time that the PAC is “the unofficial political arm of all of the Republican women in the Senate,” and was an enthusiastic supporter of Nolan.
“I’m just so excited that we have this open seat in Vermont,” Conway said in July. “Really, I mean, I find Christina to be out of central casting, like born and raised in Vermont, school in Vermont, the first woman U.S. attorney. Like, she just fits. And her age, she has plenty of experience without being too old. She has plenty of room to grow in that seat without, she’s not too young that people think she needs more experience. I just think that this is the time.”
But Nolan lost her primary bid by four points to Malloy, a political newcomer who aligned himself with Trump. After her defeat, national GOP dollars for Vermont’s open U.S. Senate race evaporated.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, told VTDigger this week that she sees Nolan’s primary loss as a “classic” example of primaries “appealing to what you think are the strongest part of your base.”
“I think Christina Nolan would have been a better candidate,” Donahue said. “I would have supported her candidacy. I don’t think she would necessarily have won because of the, you know, the strength of the Democratic perspective, but she certainly would have been a much stronger candidate. Gerald Malloy did well in the primary, because he had that base.”
Madden, who won the Republican nomination but identified as an independent, also did not attract GOP donors. He wouldn’t commit to caucus with Republicans, and so the Vermont Republican Party declined to support him with party resources or funds.
Dame told VTDigger in November that, as the leader of the party, it was disappointing that the state “lost a lot of potential fundraising opportunities.” Asked on Friday if he could quantify how much potential money had been left on the table, Dame declined, saying, “that feels like a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking.”
He did say, though, that having “high-quality” candidates in Vermont’s two open federal races could have inspired greater enthusiasm down the Republican ticket.
“Especially in a year like this, where the (race for the U.S. House majority) ended up being really close, having candidates who can not only raise money themselves, but can also kind of inspire the base, allows the state party to kind of hitch their wagon to somebody who can excite and engage your regular voters who are going to come out and vote Republican down the rest of the ticket,” Dame said.
“When people feel like we’ve got a real shot at a race, they’re a little more willing to make phone calls, to volunteer to donate, and those are all things that can help to create a rising tide that lifts all boats.”
GOP losses continued down the ballot
Down-ballot, five previously Republican House districts flipped from red to blue, delivering the Democrats a record-setting, veto-proof supermajority in the state House, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 1966.
“Wednesday morning, it was a big disappointment because our goal and where we put a lot of our focus was on picking up House seats, and we went backwards,” Dame said. “I think we’ve got maybe the fewest number of Republicans ever.”
The GOP had also hoped to gain ground in the state Senate, but Democrats and Progressives held the line.
Dame, Donahue and Parent all said they think the national Republican Party’s rhetoric hurt down-ballot Republicans in Vermont.
“The thing used to be that all elections are local,” Dame said. “And I feel like over the last four to six years, the inverse has happened. All elections have become national.”
Donahue said that the prevailing sentiment in Vermont has been that “Vermont Republicans were different from national Republicans. We were not the same.” But recently, she said, those lines have blurred.
What she deemed the “deserved reputation of the Republican Party nationally” has made Vermonters disinclined to support even moderate local GOP candidates. And she said that some Vermont Republican candidates have leaned further to the right — and voters have noticed.
Parent said he has seen some Vermont Republicans borrow another tactic from the national party’s playbook, to the state party’s demise: Trump-style brashness.
“People saw Trump be successful nationally, thought they could take that model to Vermont,” Parent said. “It doesn’t play in Vermont. And so you know, people embrace the brash, in-your-face politics and it doesn’t work here.”
Parent also pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade abortion case precedent as a liability for Republicans this cycle. In Vermont, some down-ballot Republicans stood against Proposal 5, an amendment to enshrine abortion protections in the state constitution that passed with overwhelming support. (Both Scott and Benning supported Prop 5.)
Parent also said he doesn’t believe Vermont’s newly redrawn legislative districts did Republicans any favors. He pointed specifically to the redrawn Orleans-4 district, the only race in which two incumbents were forced to compete. Rep. Katherine Sims, D-Craftsbury, defeated Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, 60-38.
“Vicki had been an incumbent for a decade and all of a sudden now was in a tough fight,” Parent said.
But Parent acknowledged that Republican losses can’t be entirely chalked up to redistricting. He said, in general, he didn’t see Republicans campaigning on strong policy messages, and noted that the party fielded only 88 candidates for 150 state House seats. He concluded that he doesn’t believe Republicans “did a good job of recruiting candidates.” Dame agreed that recruitment was a major challenge this year.
Parent pointed out that Democrats benefit from Emerge, the nationwide organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. According to the organization’s Vermont chapter, 48 of its 59 alumnae up for election this year won their races.
“Democrats have been investing for years and training candidates, getting candidates involved at the local level,” he said. “I think what they do with Emerge is fabulous, from an organizational and training perspective. It’s envious on the Republican side that they have that kind of an organization and dedication just to training candidates.”
What’s the future of the GOP in Vermont?
Parent, himself, was once seen as a rising star of the Vermont Republican Party. He started young, winning his first state House election in 2015 at age 24, and moved to the state Senate in 2018. But this year, he opted not to seek reelection. Now, asked which viable statewide GOP candidates are waiting in the wings, he comes up short.
“I don’t know. I don’t have a clue, to be honest,” he said.
In his decision to exit politics “for the time being,” Parent, who has two young children, cited family and financial obligations. But he also said he made the call to bow out after seeing his place in the queue to run for higher office.
Many politicians would covet a spot at the front of the line. On the Democratic side, there is a bottleneck of candidates vying for Vermont’s relatively few opportunities for state office. But for Parent, running for statewide office didn’t appeal.
“Looking at the bench, understanding where I might have been on the bench, I don’t feel bad leaving the bench. I’ll leave it at that,” Parent said. “There’s not a guilt in me being like, ‘I’m leaving the party in a bad spot.’”
One thing is certain heading into 2024: Trump is running for president once again. Should he win the Republican nomination, both Parent and Donahue said he represents a liability for down-ballot Republicans next election.
“I think personally, I think it would be horrific if he were the candidate again,” Donahue said. “I think that would be the worst possible sign of the Republican trajectory.”
For Vermont Republicans to stand a chance in 2024 with Trump at the top of the ballot, Donahue said, state party members would have to unite behind “a very vocal denunciation. And I don’t know if there are enough Republicans who would feel able to make that kind of denunciation.”
Dame remains optimistic for 2024. He said there needs to be “some fundamental restructuring from the bottom up about the party.” But he also sees an opportunity for Republicans to “set the agenda” in Montpelier over the next two years.
With a veto-proof majority, Dame said Democrats and Progressives “don’t get to use Governor Scott as an excuse about why they can’t get the progressive agenda through.”
He predicted more public in-fighting between the Democratic Party’s left and center flanks, creating the potential for Republicans to rise above as a united, albeit small, front.
And on the issue of crafting the state budget, Dame noted that the state’s flood of federal Covid-19 pandemic aid has dried up, and the economy could be trending downward. “There’s going to be a lot of very difficult choices that have to be made” when it comes to budgeting, Dame said, and Republicans have an opportunity to shine.
Parent struck a more pessimistic note.
“I’ve always believed that political parties are about — while it is important to have your core objectives and beliefs — it’s to figure out how to build a broad enough coalition to get to 51% of the vote, or 50.1 just to win elections,” he said. “And when a political party no longer wins elections, it’s not a political party. It’s just a group of people yelling and shouting. And I think the party, especially Vermont’s, is moving in that direction.”