Politically Thinking: Moderate GOP candidates will fare better in Vt.

Robert Gannett was a former Republican legislator from Brattleboro who died last month at the age of 94. From 1953 to 1961, Gannett served four terms in the “old” Vermont House — when each city and town, regardless of population, elected one member — as the representative from Brattleboro. After a 12-year hiatus from elective politics, Gannett returned to Montpelier in 1973, as a member of the Senate, and served in that body until his retirement in 1993. Gannett, who was highly respected by colleagues from both parties, was chair of the Appropriations Committee for much of his time in the Senate.
Gannett was one of a long line of moderate Republicans from Windham County. The line started with George Aiken and Ernest Gibson Jr., who both served as governor and U.S. senator. It continued with, among others, James Oakes (Gannett’s law partner, Windham County senator, attorney general, later a federal court judge); Gibson’s sons Ernest (Vermont supreme court judge), Robert (long-time secretary of the Vermont Senate, a position his father once held), and David (Windham County senator and later secretary of the senate); Stephan Morse (House speaker in the 1980s); and Bob Gannett.
These Windham County Republicans exemplified a moderate style of politics that was the dominant strain in the Vermont GOP during the 1970s and 1980s, when the Republicans’ historical dominance of Vermont politics was threatened by the growth of the Democratic party in the state. Although not from Windham County, centrist Republicans such as Dick Snelling, Bob Stafford, Jim Jeffords and Peter Smith were the most visible faces of the Vermont GOP during these two decades. Moderate Republicans held the governorship, one U.S. Senate seat, and the state’s U.S. House seat during much of this period.
Fast-forward to the 2012 election cycle, and the Vermont Republican party presents two faces to the Vermont electorate. The Republicans who are most likely to win this year — Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, and auditor candidate Vince Illuzzi — are both moderates in the historic Vermont Republican tradition. Both Scott and Illuzzi are well-regarded by most Democrats who serve with them in the Senate. Both of these candidates are minimizing their connections to the state and national Republican parties. It is unlikely that either Scott or Illuzzi will utter the names “Romney” or “Ryan” on a public platform this fall.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock is more oriented toward the Republican base, and to national Republican themes, than either Scott or Illuzzi. To speak at fundraisers, Brock and the Republican party leadership invited Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a Tea Party favorite, and New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, an early supporter of Mitt Romney. LePage and Ayotte are too conservative to be electable in Vermont. If the state GOP leadership had instead invited Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts or Susan Collins of Maine to speak, they would have shown they recognize the need for Republicans to be moderates in order to win in Vermont.
Brock did not help his cause by going to the Republican convention in Tampa last week. As a minority party that is shrinking in size, Vermont Republicans need the support of centrist and independent voters in order to win elections. Brock has said that he has reservations about some parts of the Republican national platform, such as the language on abortion restrictions. But by going to Tampa, Brock allowed himself to be associated with a party, candidates and platform that are out of step with the bulk of political opinion in Vermont, and with the state’s once proud moderate Republican tradition as well.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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