How Vermont turned from red to blue


There was once a state that voted against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in every one of his four landslide elections. That state had only Republican governors from 1855 to 1963, and only Republican senators from 1856 to 1975. Yet, in 2012, that same state had granted victories to Democratic President Barack Obama in 249 of its 251 municipalities, and all 14 of its counties. It had the nation's only sitting Democratic-Socialist Senator, as well as a Democratic Congressman, another long-time Democratic Senator, a Democratic Governor, and Democratic majorities in both houses of its Legislature. Of course, I'm talking about Vermont. But how did this once Republican stronghold — the earth that gave the country the conservative Calvin Coolidge — become the nation's bastion of liberalism?

It all started in the 1950s. From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, the Republican Party had an unbreakable majority in Vermont. But by the mid-1950s, this majority began to show signs of weakening. In the year 1950, Republican Lee Earl Emerson won the gubernatorial election, beating his Democratic opponent J. Edward Moran by nearly 50 percentage points. However, in Emerson's 1952 re-election bid, he limped to re-election by a mere 12 percent margin. His Republican successor, Joseph Blaine Johnson, won by only 5 percent, and Johnson's successor, Bob Stafford, won by less than 1 percent of the vote. Finally, in 1962, Phil Hoff — Vermont's own young, liberal, charismatic "JFK" — had captured the governorship, the first Democrat in over a century to do so. In 1958, Vermont elected its first Democratic Congressman in over a century as well. Clearly, the 1950s were a pivotal point for transitioning away from Republican control of the state.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, it was in part due to their own infighting that led to their downfall. Starting in the 1940s, the Republican stalwart regime broke into two factions: one led by the traditional, conservative Republicans of the "Proctor" family, and another led by a new progressive wing of Republicans, which included Governor Ernest Gibson. The once unified GOP was broken. For example, according to State Senator and Vermont historian Bill Doyle, in 1958, six Republicans ran for the Republican congressional nomination (and went on to lose to a Democrat in the general election), and four Republicans ran for lieutenant governor. Ultimately, these slugfests of R versus R in the primaries left Republican candidates damaged when the general election rolled around. The disorganization of the Vermont Republican party in the 1950s left the door open for the increasingly well-organized Democrats to step in.

However, the change was not only the product of the Republicans self-inflicted wounds. Several other crucial factors were at play. For example, during the 1950s, Vermont's urban population centers increased by 6.2 percent, while its rural population actually fell. Similarly, during the same period, Chittenden County's population grew by 20.9 percent. The growing urbanization of Vermont did not help Republicans who traditionally relied on rural communities for their support. Furthermore, much of this population growth was driven by the "importation" of Vermont residents from outside the state. By 1970, one in four Vermont residents had been born elsewhere, according to Doyle, and many came from more liberal northeastern states, bringing their ideologies with them. The building of the interstate highway, I-89, likely contributed to this outcome. Additionally, in the early 1960s, legislative apportionment was determined by "one-man, one-vote" rather than the traditional "one-town, one-vote" method. Overnight, legislative Republicans representing rural areas had their seats taken away.

Finally, around the same time, the national parties themselves underwent major changes. The old notions of Liberal Republicans and Conservative Democrats disappeared in the late 19th century, as Republican areas became more decidedly conservative and Democratic states became more consistently liberal. Some Republican leaders in the state were able to hang on, including well-known Vermont Republicans like George Aiken, Bob Stafford, and Jim Jeffords. But after their retirement, each of their positions turned blue.

Interestingly, despite the downfall of the Vermont Republican Party during the 19th century, the state has achieved an interesting equilibrium with respect to Governors. While Democrats dominate presidential elections in Vermont and have strong control over the Legislature, the political party of each new Governor has switched back and forth since 1961. We've gone from Keyser (R) to Hoff (D) to Davis (R) to Salmon (D) to Snelling (R) to Kunin (D) to Snelling again (R) to Dean (D) to Douglas (R) to Shumlin (D). And not one of these Governors, with the exception of Keyser, was ever defeated in a bid for re-election. Whether or not Vermonters decide to continue with this alternating-party equilibrium will ultimately depend on the outcome of the 2016 elections, which are sure to be pivotal.

Hayden Dublois is a resident of Manchester and a student at Middlebury College.



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