AP Photo / Toby Talbot
Voters fill the polling booths on Tuesday in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — On Jan. 2, 2011, before their newly elected crop of lawmakers had even been sworn in, House Democrats hired a 24-year-old budding political strategist to begin plotting a course for 2012.
Tuesday night in Burlington, as polling results streamed into an election-night headquarters there, the Democrats’ long-term investment yielded dividends. A party that already held nearly a supermajority in the Vermont House of Representatives will see a net gain of two seats when the body reconvenes in January.
“It was an incredible amount of pressure, and I was very prepared to lose seats,” said Nick Charyk, the man tapped by House Democrats in 2011 to run their political arm.
Democrats next year will see their House numbers go from 94 to 96.
“The realist in me and the statistician in me understood how high a bar I was looking at,” he said.
In the face of a well-funded conservative super PAC, anxiety over single-payer health care and concerns over one-party rule, Charyk managed to fend off all but two Republican challenges to incumbent Democrats and picked off a few GOP officeholders with candidates he began recruiting early last year.
“As it turns out, investing in the best candidate possible wins out over carpet-bombing the state with negative ads,” Charyk said.
In much the same way that a better-funded, better-staffed Vermont Democratic Party helped carry its slate of statewide candidates to resounding wins Tuesday, House Democrats’ field advantage likely proved the difference in close local races.
Between the Vermont Democratic House Campaign — headed by Charyk — and the closely allied Vermont House Solidarity PAC, Democrats raised nearly $200,000 toward their House elections machine. The money paid for Charyk’s salary and benefits — $34,000 in 2011, $36,000 this year — and some contracts with Vermont-based consultants.
House Republicans’ equivalent organization, by comparison, took in less than $27,000 over the two-year cycle. Unable to afford even part-time staff, let alone a salaried full-timer like Charyk, House Minority Leader Don Turner was left to oversee recruiting and field organization for a 48-member Republican caucus that had as recently as this summer crowed about its plans to retake the majority.
On the eve of the election, Vermont GOP Chairman Jack Lindley was still telling reporters that Republicans would have 65 House seats come January. By the time results become final, Republicans could see their numbers fall to 42.
“We had some rock-solid candidates in some places and they got just decimated,” Turner said. “It’s clear to anyone looking that we’re at a disadvantage from an organizing standpoint, and it’s something we’re going to have to address.”
Republicans did enjoy success in Rutland, where challenger Larry Cupoli unseated incumbent Democrat Peg Andrews. Republican Doug Gage, meanwhile, won a contested race for the open seat being vacated by outgoing Democrat Gale Courcelle. And not far away, in a newly redrawn district that includes Ludlow, Mount Holly and Shrewsbury, Republican Dennis Devereaux emerged victorious from a battle between two incumbents.
Almost everywhere else, however, Democrats prevailed.
Charyk said the election results serve as testimony to the power of studied candidate recruitment, grass-roots field organization and a late-race get-out-the-vote effort targeted at key battlegrounds.
House Speaker Shap Smith said finding the right candidates last year was key to the gains in 2012.
“I think it’s the candidates themselves,” Smith said. “I think we have good candidate recruitment. We identify people who are going to work well for their district, and then give them the support they need to be successful.”
Effective recruitment is the kind of labor-intensive undertaking for which professional staff is usually needed. Charyk spent much of 2011 embedding in Republican districts he believed Democrats could win, or in Democratic districts where outgoing officeholders would leave open seats.
“I sat down with as many people as I could, had coffee, developed a list of people, five or 10 people in town that might make great candidates and worked hard to recruit them,” Charyk said. “The metaphor we use is find out who built the Little League field, and go talk to them first.”
Charyk complements recruitment efforts with a targeted get-out-the-vote program aided by the impressive voter identification infrastructure amassed by the Vermont Democratic Party.
Charyk faced unexpected opposition this summer and fall in the form of the conservative super PAC Vermonters First, which spent about $800,000 to influence elections, much of which went to local races for the House and Senate.
Vermonters First spent its money on statewide mailers and television and radio advertisements. While Charyk did end up dropping about $10,000 on mailers and radio ads, “the bulk of the investments we made were in the time of a full-time staffer to recruit candidates.”
“We invested in people,” Charyk said. “And I think it worked.”
The Democrats unseated two GOP incumbents Tuesday, including a surprise win over Jim Eckhardt in the Rutland-Windsor-1 district.
The cycle-long approach to House campaigns isn’t a new one for Democrats. Smith said the strategy has been in place since he arrived in Montpelier in 2002.
But he credited the strategy for helping the caucus grow from minority status in his freshman biennium to its dominance today.
If Republicans are to hope to eat into Democrats’ numbers in 2014, Turner said, the party needs to reform the way it does business.
“We have a system, but it’s outdated and antiquated,” Turner said.
Attaining the level of sophistication they’ll need to compete, he said, will require the party to professionalize its operation.
“I think it is inevitable if we’re going to be competitive that we have to do things differently, and that means having people that are doing it full time,” he said.
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