Eric Davis: GOP could deny Democrats a majority
The 2016 elections for the Vermont House of Representatives will be one of the most interesting parts of next year’s political cycle.
In 2014, Vermont Democrats lost 12 House seats, going from 98 seats before the election to 86 seats in the current Legislature. They also lost the so-called super-majority in the House, the two-thirds majority they had held along with Progressives. However, Democrats still hold a comfortable overall majority, with 10 seats more than the 76 needed to control the 150-member chamber.
For Vermont Republicans, who gained 10 House seats in 2014, the most optimistic scenario for 2016 would be to gain still more seats, creating a situation where no party has a 76-seat majority when the Legislature convenes in January 2017.
There are now 54 Republicans in the House. If the GOP could gain another 10 seats in 2016, they would have 64 seats. If the Progressives and Independents together retain the 10 seats they now hold, Democrats would then have only the bare minimum of 76 seats needed for a majority.
If the Republicans could gain 12 seats in 2016, Democrats would still be the largest party in the House, but not the majority party. The same outcome would result if Independent and Progressive candidates were to pick up at least two Democratic-held seats, with the Republicans gaining 10 seats.
Could the Republicans gain 10 to 12 House seats in 2016? I see several reasons why such an outcome should not be ruled out. In 2014, there were 27 Democrats elected to the House from districts where Republican Scott Milne received more votes for governor than Democrat Peter Shumlin. Several of these Democratic House members had no Republican opponents in 2014.
The GOP, under the leadership of state chair David Sunderland, has strengthened its organizational capacity for the 2016 cycle. Republicans plan to start candidate recruitment for House districts earlier than they have in the past. If the GOP is able to recruit a full slate of House candidates in districts that have voted Republican in recent statewide contests, gaining at least 10 House seats could be the result.
The Vermont Republican Party has hired a new field director, Benjamin Garrow, to build up an area where the state GOP has been notoriously weak in recent election cycles. Among other things, Garrow wants to recruit 104 district captains, one in every House district (some districts elect two members), to coordinate Republican grass-roots activity at the local level. A robust field effort, coupled with better candidate recruitment, could allow Republicans to overcome some of the disadvantages they faced in the 2012 and 2014 legislative elections.
If Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is the Republican nominee for governor in 2016, his candidacy would likely have a modest coattail effect, enabling Republicans to win a few legislative districts, especially in the more rural parts of the state, where Democrats have not faced serious competition in several cycles. GOP legislative candidates in 2016 will also benefit from outside money that will be spent by Republican National Committee-affiliated groups at the state level.
Democrat Shap Smith, who will have been House Speaker for eight years, will leave the Legislature after next year’s session to run for governor. If no party has an overall majority when the Legislature convenes in January 2017, it is possible that someone other than a Democrat could be elected speaker in the next House.
In a House with no majority party, a candidate for speaker would have to assemble a cross-partisan coalition of Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Progressives. In this environment, the Progressives and Independents would have disproportionate influence on the election of Smith’s successor as speaker.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.