Eric Davis: Vt. GOP: Keep Trump at a distance
When Vermont’s newly elected legislative and executive officials took their oaths of office on Wednesday, there were fewer Republicans in the Statehouse than at any time in the last 150 years.
Gov. Phil Scott will be sworn in on Thursday as the only Republican holding a statewide office. All of the other Republican governors in the modern era of Vermont politics — Deane Davis, Dick Snelling and Jim Douglas — were joined on the platform on inauguration day by either a Republican lieutenant governor or at least one Republican holding another of the statewide elected offices.
Republican representation in the Legislature will also be the lowest it has been since the party was founded in the 1850s. Only 49 of the 180 legislators — 27 percent of the combined membership of the House and Senate — were elected as Republicans. With only 6 of 30 senators, and 43 of 150 House members, the GOP will be hard-pressed to sustain any vetoes that Gov. Scott may cast in the next biennium.
Last November’s legislative election results were a disaster for Vermont Republicans. They lost another seat in the Senate and, more importantly, lost 10 seats in the House.
The House Republicans who were defeated included popular moderate members such as Kurt Wright of Burlington, Fred Baser of Bristol and Brian Keefe of Manchester who were swept out of office by a “blue wave.” These legislators reported that when they were campaigning door-to-door, they were sometimes told that voters liked them as individuals, but were voting a straight Democratic ticket to express their opposition to President Trump and congressional Republicans.
So where does the Vermont Republican Party go from here? Can it recover from November 2018? In the short-term, Republicans’ goals should be to try to get back closer to one-third of the membership of each legislative chamber, and to ensure Gov. Scott’s re-election in what could be a difficult political environment in 2020.
In my opinion, the first step Vermont Republicans must take in order to regain some headway in Montpelier is to distinguish and separate themselves, to the greatest extent possible, from President Trump and the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate. Vermont is arguably the state where Trump has the least support in the nation.
A public poll taken before the November election showed Trump’s approval rating in Vermont at 24 percent, compared with roughly 40 percent nationally. This result makes sense to me. For most of the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, Vermonters’ approval of the incumbent president was roughly 15 points “more Democratic” than those presidents’ national approval levels. Trump’s November 2016 popular vote share of 29 percent in Vermont was also the lowest of any of the 50 states.
Over the next year, Gov. Scott and like-minded moderate Republicans should work as hard as they can to replace the current leadership of the Vermont Republican Party with people whose main focus will be on making Republican gains in Vermont elections in November 2020, not on re-electing President Trump. The current state party chair and vice chair are both Trump supporters, who during 2018 proposed messaging campaigns such as “Make Vermont Great Again,” and who attacked the members of Vermont’s congressional delegation for their opposition to Trump. This sort of Republicanism is not going to help the Vermont GOP regain seats in the Legislature or re-elect Gov. Scott.
If the governor and his supporters are unable to change the leadership and direction of the Vermont Republican Party, I believe Scott should seriously consider running for re-election as an independent, not as a Republican, in 2020. Two other moderate New England Republicans pursued this strategy successfully and were elected as independent governors after leaving the GOP: Lowell Weicker in Connecticut and Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island. Scott might want to study their careers and consider whether he should do the same.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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