Politically Thinking: Republican candidates absent

When the filing deadline for Vermont candidates passed last week, something noteworthy in the political history of Addison County happened: not a single Republican filed for either of the county’s seats in the Vermont Senate.
This is a sharp contrast to the Addison County political scene as recently as three decades ago. In 1980, Republicans held both of the Senate seats, as they had since the formation of the Republican Party in the 1850s. The GOP continued to win both Senate seats throughout the 1980s, until Elizabeth Ready was elected the first Democratic senator from Addison County in 1988.
The Addison Senate delegation was made up of one Democrat and one Republican from 1988 through 2002. For the last 10 years, both Senate seats have been held by Democrats, although the Republicans did nominate at least one candidate in every election cycle. Some of these candidates, such as former Rep. Mark Young of Orwell, who sought election to the Senate in 2010, were well-known figures in the county.
Unless the local Republicans can find a write-in Senate candidate by the August primary, Independent Robert Wagner will be the only other name on the Senate ballot in November in addition to Democrats Claire Ayer and Chris Bray.
Addison County is not the only part of Vermont where the number of Republican Senate candidates has fallen off sharply. In the state’s largest legislative district, the six-member Chittenden Senate district, only two Republican candidates — incumbent Diane Snelling and challenger Shelley Palmer — filed for the six seats.
There are several explanations for the decline in Republican candidates. The Vermont Republican Party does not have much money, and there are no paid staff in the GOP office, an unusual situation less than five months before Election Day. An important responsibility of the parties’ executive directors is talking to potential legislative candidates and persuading them to run. This year, candidate recruitment was the responsibility of the Republican legislative leadership and the party chair, all of whom have full-time jobs outside of politics when the Legislature is not in session.
With resources so strained, the Republicans decided to concentrate their efforts this year on legislative seats in those regions of the state where they think they can win. Franklin County and Rutland County have been the best parts of the state for GOP candidates recently, so the Republicans will be emphasizing legislative races in those two counties. In fact, the GOP could even pick up a Senate seat in Franklin County, where there are no incumbents on the ballot in a two-member district.
The Northeast Kingdom, which has historically been a strongly Republican part of Vermont, has seen an increase in Democratic strength in recent years. Democrats now hold two of the four Senate seats from Caledonia, Essex and Orleans counties, and they are competitive in House races in the parts of Caledonia County closest to Montpelier and the rest of Washington County.
Because the Republicans are able to contest so few seats, they are at a tipping point in the Legislature. They could retain their current strength of about 30 percent of the House and Senate seats, and still have enough members to have a meaningful role, even though they will always lose party-line roll-call votes. However, the Republicans do run the risk, over the next several election cycles, of seeing their legislative membership dwindle down to around 25 percent of the House and Senate, a level from which the GOP may have great difficulty ever rebuilding.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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