Comeback time or not?

MANCHESTER - Once a Republican stronghold, Manchester is no longer. In 2012, the district became part of a two seat district and voted in Democrats.

In 2008, Jeff Wilson defeated long term Republican Incumbent Judy Livingston by less than 10 votes. In 2010 and 2012, he sailed to reelection amidst virtually no opposition.

Currently served by Rep. Cynthia Browning and Rep. Jeff Wilson, both Democrats, there is only one Republican, Tony Du Pont running this election cycle. Browning and new comer Steve Barry are running as Democrats. Wilson has decided not to run again to spend more time with his family. All three candidates will make it through the August 26 primary and will be candidates in the at large election in November. The two candidates with the most votes will represent the Manchester, as well as Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate in Montpelier.

What's changed?

For Wilson, the reason Republicans have not been elected in Manchester has to do with the way the party has moved in recent years. While he said both Judy Livingston and Orland Campbell, both Republicans who held the seat before he did, were great legislatures, the state has changed and so has Manchester.

"We (the state of Vermont) do not have a lot in common with the national [Republican] party," he said. "The National party is run by ideologues in South and Midwest."

He said along with the more extreme Republican national party, the party in Vermont is split over what kind of Republican they want to be. Vermont had more Republican leadership in the 1970s and 80s, Wilson said, when there were more pragmatic leaders in the party.

Representative Patti Komline, a Republican representing the Rutland-Bennington district said recruiting Republicans to run in this area is difficult. "The legislative schedule makes it difficult to recruit," she said. "Business owners haven't completely come back from the recession. They have to work, they may not be able to hire someone else and they can't step up and do this [run for office]."

Like Wilson, she said the national party has changed in the recent past and Komline makes sure to state she is a Vermont Republican. The party in Vermont, she said, is not the same as the party elsewhere.

"The party is more moderate and tends to be more libertarian on social issues than the national party," she said.

Eric Davis, professor of political science at Middlebury College, said towns that have a resort based economy are generally more Republican than other towns in Vermont. While Manchester does not have a Republican currently representing voters, Davis said what they do have is Browning.

"The most a Republican could hope for in the Bennington 4 is Cynthia Browning getting reelected and voting with them," he said.

While Browning is a Democrat, Davis said she votes with the Republicans as much as she votes with her own party.

On a state level, Davis said Republicans just have a harder time recruiting candidates.

"[The Republicans] have a very weak organization and financially [as well]," he said. "The Democratic committee has well over $100,000 cash on hand, the Republicans have only about $20,000. The Democrats have multiple paid staffers. The Republicans have only one."

Along with the lack of political infrastructure, Davis said a gubernatorial candidate is usually tasked with helping to recruit candidates. Scott Milne, one of the Republican candidates for governor, did not announce his candidacy until the filing deadline, missing a chance to recruit more candidates, Davis said.

While Browning acknowledged she does not always vote with her party, she said she does not align with the Republicans, but rather that she is an independent voter. She said a key to getting elected in this district has more to do with loyalty than with political party.

"Who the person is matters just as much as the party," she said. "Jeff Wilson [who beat an incumbent Republican by a close margin] was a former town manager, well liked and respected."

Browning agreed with Komline and said that running for office when living in the Bennington 4 district is difficult.

"I think it is very difficult to serve from this district, you don't get to go home at night," she said. "It's a major disruption."

While there are three Republican gubernatorial candidate, Milne, Steve Berry and Emily Peyton, none are from the surrounding area and could not help Manchester recruit a Republican candidate.

Milne, cites the Republican split in 2000 and 2002, regarding civil unions, for some of the organizational problems the party is currently facing. He said Governor Douglas handled the issue well, not making civil unions a party issue and telling the legislature to vote their conscience. His veto of the bill was overridden, Milne said, but that speaks to local control and listening to what the voters want.

"What the Republicans did was make it a party issue, demanded loyalty and then went out and roasted the folks [who voted in favor]," he said. "They organized opposition against them and took back the house for two years. They took it b back on a message of not what we're going to do, but what's wrong."

Milne said power can bring organization and discipline, something the Democrats have more of in Vermont. But for him, the low point for Republicans in the state was 2000.

"I see us as on our way back now," he said. "We have a more moderate, more inclusive party. I think we're much more organized. What I see is exactly like the principles of my campaign, practical, the more local the better, use common sense and business, and not some national ideology."


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