Returning from the Dead?

Just in time, the Vermont Republican Party may have taken its first, admittedly tentative step towards becoming a relevant voice in state politics again.

Last weekend, delegates to the party's biannual meeting selected David Sunderland, a former state representative from the Rutland area, to be their new chairman. Ordinarily, that wouldn't be terribly newsworthy, and party chairmen and women aren't exactly household names around the state. This election, which pitted Sunderland against John McGovern, who ran unsuccessfully against Bernie Sanders in 2012 for the U.S. Senate (but who gets points for trying) reflected the national debate underway within Republican ranks over whether the party would be best served by "rebranding" itself as a more pragmatic group that doesn't view compromise as a dirty word, or whether hewing closely to what has become, since the 2010 election, the national party's more strident approach on social issues, tax and spending policy and a general reluctance to reach across the political aisle for solutions is the way to go.

Vermont Republicans took a pounding in last year's elections. The state that hadn't elected a Democrat to the Governor's office in more than a century until Phil Hoff won in 1962 is now among the bluest of blue states.

And yet, as Jim Douglas, who handily won four terms as governor between 2002 and 2010 showed, a moderate Republican who eschews the hard rhetoric on social issues, takes a sensible stance on taxing and spending (and that emphasizes living within the state's means), combined with an openness to finding common ground, can be a winning electoral formula. Even here.

Today, the Vermont GOP holds only one statewide office - the relatively powerless post of Lieutenant Governor. Phil Scott is a likeable man who may one day be a formidable candidate for the governorship - there are many who would like to think that day is coming soon, like next year - but so far hasn't indicated he's ready to go head to head with Peter Shumlin, the incumbent. All the other state offices, plus all three federal offices, are in the hands of Democrats or independent Bernie Sanders, who rarely votes with Republicans. What should be of further and deeper concern for the GOP is that there is virtually no one on their "bench" with enough name recognition or standing to mount a credible challenge for any of those offices.

In the state legislature, Republicans are locked into super-minority status, and outwardly would seem to have little chance of regaining enough seats to even thwart a gubernatorial veto, much less regain control of one or both houses of the legislature.

If problems are really opportunities in disguise, the state GOP has a lot of opportunity.

While it might seem a bad time for Republicans to be fighting more with each other than Peter Shumlin and his band of happy warriors, it's healthy that the state GOP is confronting its internal schism and hopefully finding its footing around the more moderate, pragmatic approach. Eventually, that will pay dividends. The grass roots organization of the party, at least in southern Vermont, has withered to near invisibility. It holds only two seats out of nine that encompass Bennington County (one is held by an independent). The last time a Republican represented the county in the state senate was in 2006. That is as close to being officially moribund as you can get, and while many voters will say that is just fine and reflects how out of touch and how unable the party has been to field strong candidates, it's not healthy for any state, or country, for that matter, to be effectively governed as a one-party state.

The political center of gravity is now between progressive, and what we might call mainstream Democrats. A more diverse and intellectually charged debate won't occur until the GOP gets its mojo back, but the party apparatus has to change first to meet the voters, not the other way around.

There are real issues confronting the state around the best pathways to economic growth and providing for the basic needs of citizens, without the superstructure of the nanny state. Finding the right balance between individual liberty, and intelligent state governance in a world that is as different from the golden years of iron Republican control of Vermont politics as it's possible to be, is not simple. Finding the right formula of the least amount of taxation, consistent with investing in the state infrastructure, education needs and safety nets, is complicated, but the best answers will come when both parties bring common sense solutions to the table and fight the good fight. Then they should be able to go off someplace for a nice dinner together, perhaps washed down with some appropriate beverages.

The Vermont GOP has dug itself a deep hole, but it's not one that is inescapable unless they make it so. If nothing else, the badly mishandled roll out of health exchanges has given them an opening. We have supported the exchanges and will continue to do so until a better alternative emerges, and there are alternatives that could be explored.

More broadly, finding approaches to building the economy of the state and making it as a attractive for businesses to build and expand here will have a better chance at success when the entire statewide ideological spectrum is better balanced.

But right now, the Republicans deserve their super-minority status. Their challenge is to rebuild their party to the point where it can be taken seriously again. The alternative is to become the state's third or even fourth party - taking their place behind the Progressives and Independents. That could yet happen.

Good luck, Mr. Sunderland.


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