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Letter to the editor: State GOP must change strategy

Editor’s note: The letter writer is a former Republican state representative from Bristol.
The Vermont Republican Party has experienced almost two decades of declining fortunes. There are a few bright spots, Jim Douglas’s and Phil Scott’s gubernatorial elections most notably. However, the Vermont House was last controlled by the GOP in 2004 and the Senate had its last Republican majority in 1996. The GOP’s results in federal races is even worse. The 2018 election was a disaster for the Vermont Republican Party with only 43 state representatives (out of 150) and 6 state senators (out of 30) getting elected. Most troubling was the party’s inability to attract capable women and men to run for office.
When you take a licking like Republicans have for a while, money dries up and candidates and volunteers get scarce. How does the Grand Old Party turn things around? How did the party get to this discouraging state?
Vermont’s Republicans, going back to George Aiken, have been conservative but an independent lot, not in the party sense, but in their ability to recognize good policy for a changing Vermont and an ability to compromise when it was in the state’s best interest. Gov. Snelling’s tax deal with Democratic Speaker Wright is one poignant example of compromise. It was Republican Gov. Davis and Republican Sen. Art Gibb that advanced and authored Act 250 during a time of rapid development within the state. Gov. Douglas established the Blueprint for Health, a way toward lowering health care costs. In his book, “The Vermont Way,” written just a few years ago, Gov. Douglas speaks to a “different Vermont whose leaders work together to ensure economic prosperity and protect its natural beauty,” the way of the past Republican notables.
Today’s GOP leadership (not including many elected Republicans) takes on the national party’s stance, developed by Newt Gingrich in the mid 1990s, that stresses an uncompromising ideological purity. This ideological purity also stresses some social principals that go beyond traditional conservatism. In many parts of the nation this “new” Republican Party mantra has worked. In Vermont, and New England in general, it has not. The numbers verify this flawed strategy for Vermont. The Vermont GOP can either stick to their current ideological purity, feel righteous about it, and continue to lose elections, or … it can make a few policy changes that can turn the tables in its favor.
The Democratic Party in Vermont has been very wise in the development of a cohesive strategy that has insured their decade-plus success in winning elections and developing strong candidates. They’ve welcomed very liberal thinkers, and successfully integrated their policy ideas into more moderate (still liberal) legislation. This makes for a liberal assembly with a bit of braking mechanism. Democrats also consistently advance many policy ideas that strike at leading issues. Their grassroots campaign strategy is very effective in assisting candidates that have contested local races. Plus winning means more money, candidate interest, and groups and individuals lining up to assist likeminded candidates.
So where is the opportunity for the GOP?  It’s the middle where most of the electorate exists. In recent years the Vermont GOP has donated much of the middle to the D’s through their uncompromising ideological positions, and a lack of ideas to address Vermonters’ needs.
The party that wins the middle wins elections. The Democrats are vulnerable to losing the middle. If they were to amend their platform and core policy statements to appeal directly to moderates’ it would risk alienating their most liberal left. The GOP needs to appeal to the middle with common sense proposals to those issues most pressing to Vermonters. Right now, the Republican platform speaks in generalities like personal responsibility, economic freedom, safety, and one nation under God. This means little to a family struggling to afford housing, day care, college, or paying their share of a health insurance bill. Address three or four Vermonter issues with common sense policy (easier said than done) and you begin to gain people’s attention. You also open up the doors to potential candidates that want to work to make those ideas happen.
Winning the middle means ideas, it does not mean sacrificing fundamental conservative principals, yet it means compromising when it puts the party in a favorable place in the voters’ eyes. The moderate Vermonter will vote Republican if given a reason.
The first responsibility of the State Republican Caucus and all local caucuses is to elect members of their party. The party cannot move its vision for the future forward without power in the assembly. The formula for success in Vermont is not to follow the national GOP’s playbook, it’s to formulate ideas, a vision, for Vermont’s future, express them to Vermonters and take the theme of Gov. Douglas’s book and do it “The Vermont Way.”
Fred Baser, Bristol

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