Vt. Republican Party battles over its future
They’ve descended to super-minority status in both the House and Senate, and lay claim to just one of Vermont’s six statewide offices.
By the numbers at least, the once-dominant Vermont Republicans have reached a new low in their years-long fall from grace. Their fight for the future, however, is being waged not with the Democrats that so embarrassed them in the last two election cycles, but among fellow Republicans vying against each other for control of the party’s organizational apparatus.
The emergence of two factions — one led by Vermont Republican Party Chairman Jack Lindley, the other by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott — has pitted the old-guard GOP against a cadre of upstart reformists looking to put some distance between themselves and the Republican National Committee.
As a group led by Scott pieces together a statewide re-branding strategy aimed at picking up the centrists and Independents he says have been turned off by the party in recent years, Lindley and others are beginning to push back against a plan that would, in Lindley’s words, “turn its back on the national party.”
“I’m not about to go down the road of trying to have a party in Vermont that’s Democrat-lite,” Lindley said in an interview last week.
Civil strife within the Vermont GOP comes on the heels of a general election last November that saw the party’s already meager holdings diminished even further. The lone bright spot — a convincing victory by Scott for the state’s number-two office — only prompted speculation about whether the former state senator from Washington County would rebel and declare as an Independent before the next cycle.
“Of course the elections were disappointing to many, and unsurprising to others,” Scott said in an interview Monday. “At the time, I was asked almost immediately what I was going to do to resurrect the Republican Party. What was I going to do to help shape or determine what the future of the Vermont Republican Party was going to be? And my response was always that until the Republican Party and those there admitted there was a problem, there wasn’t much I could do.”
In the weeks that followed, however, Scott said he was approached by a number of disaffected Republicans from across the state asking him to help redefine a party that, according to him, has strayed from the core principles that once played so well with the Vermont electorate.
“It’s difficult to put your finger on when the Republican Party started to deteriorate, and I do think that’s what has happened,” Scott said. “I certainly do blame the national party, the national image.”
Specifically, Scott said, the emphasis on social conservatism at the national level has sullied the party’s branding efforts in Vermont. And putting some distance between the national GOP and Vermont has become one of the guiding tenets of the new committee Scott helped form.
The “Strategic Plan Committee” includes three Republican lawmakers: Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, a Stowe Republican and former Jim Jeffords staffer; Rep. Patti Komline, who managed Scott’s reelection campaign; and Joe Benning, the second-term senator from Caledonia County who took over this year as the Senate minority leader. Other members include Richard Wobby, director of member services for Associated General Contractors of Vermont; Jason Gibbs, a former Jim Douglas staffer and failed candidate for Secretary of State; Dawn Terrill, a small business owner and board member at the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce; and Susie Hudson, a longtime player in Republican politics who was selected last May to serve as the state party’s National Committeewoman.
The committee’s already strained relationship with Lindley’s office has been complicated in recent weeks by leaks, subterfuge, and a fundamental disconnect between Scott’s new brain trust and the chairman controlling their party.
Evidence of the schism surfaced publicly when a Powerpoint presentation outlining the committee’s re-branding initiative somehow found its way to True North Reports, the online conservative outlet once headed by Rob Roper, former executive director of the Vermont GOP. In an April 7 commentary on the site, True North editor Rob Maynard blasted the committee’s work, in no small part for its focus on decoupling from the national GOP.
The “True North” brand has seen several incarnations in Vermont, but can be traced to a now-defunct radio talk show founded by Lenore Broughton, the wealthy Burlington resident who underwrote a conservative super PAC that spent more than $1 million last year on behalf of Republican candidates.
Broughton’s hard-right stance on social issues — she is devoutly pro-life and anti-gay-marriage — and somewhat ham-handed foray into electoral politics have led many in the Scott camp to view her as more of a liability than an asset, her deep pockets notwithstanding.
Lindley, though, is an ally and defender of the controversial Broughton. His inner circle also includes longtime GOP strategist Darcie Johnston — she managed Randy Brock’s gubernatorial bid — and Mark Snelling, who lost the 2010 Republican primary for lieutenant governor to Scott.
Lindley said Maynard’s story on the Powerpoint document was his first good look at what Scott’s committee had been up to. He said he didn’t like what he saw.
“It needs a lot of additional work, from what I’m seeing, or from what I saw in True North Reports,” Lindley said. “The concept of being concerned that our party’s problems are the result of the national GOP image, that’s just not very helpful at all.”
Upon reading Maynard’s report, Lindley intervened forthwith, invoking his authority as party chairman to reconstitute the committee that had been working on the re-branding initiative. An email chain between members of Scott’s group captures their frustration with Lindley’s move.
In an April 8 email to Scott, Benning, Komline, Scheuermann, Lindley and others, Wobby calls Lindley’s maneuver “a new way to splinter the party.”
“At this point I’m pretty disappointed in jacks (sic) leadership skills,” Wobby wrote.
Scott weighs in later to register his concerns to Lindley as well.
“It seems to me that in its present form, the (new) members may lead us back to ‘strategically’ reverting to old habits,” Scott wrote.
Lindley’s additions to the group include members of a Republican executive committee that put him in power.
“Part of the challenge we face has been our unwillingness to accept the fact that we must change as a party in order to be successful in the future,” Scott wrote.
On Monday, Scott reiterated his disappointment in Lindley’s intervention.
“I was a bit disappointed that a totally new group had been appointed when I thought we had been making strides,” Scott said.
For many of the Republicans seeking a change in direction, Lindley is the embodiment of the national conservatism from which they’re trying to break. Lindley’s guests of honor at various GOP fund-raising dinners — RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, for example — have elicited scorn. Last year, when Maine Gov. Paul LePage, in Vermont for a Brock campaign event, generated some controversy over his comparison of the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo, Lindley issued a glowing defense of the Tea Party hero.
The straw that may have broken the elephants’ backs, however, was a press release sent to reporters last month in which Lindley announced the Vermont Republican Party’s endorsement of the “Republican National Committee’s Growth and Opportunity Report.” He did so without consulting Scott, or anyone from his strategic committee.
“I was very concerned when I read (Lindley’s press release) myself, because as the highest-ranking Republican, I thought that it would have been important to talk to me to see what I thought about the national GOP report,” Scott said.
In the context of the ongoing re-branding effort especially, Scott, said, “I think we have to be careful about aligning ourselves with the national GOP.”
Snelling, among the half-dozen or so new appointees foisted by Lindley onto the Scott committee, said the lieutenant governor’s new-found interest in party politics has less to do with the health of the GOP, and more about positioning himself for a future gubernatorial run.
“The reality is that it is not appropriate in my view for a particular political candidate to try and run a political party,” Snelling said Monday. “I suspect the lieutenant governor is going to go forward with another race for lieutenant governor and perhaps for governor … and I think the view might be that life might be easier for them if they controlled the state party apparatus.”
While that apparatus would no doubt prove helpful for an individual campaign, Snelling said, it would not serve well the longer-term interests of the party. Snelling said his own father, former Gov. Dick Snelling, tried to pull the same move back in the 1970s. Snelling said he’s glad Lindley was around then to prevent his dad from commandeering the party.
“Dick Snelling and Jack Lindley had a significant disagreement about control of the Republican Party,” Snelling said. “Jack Lindley won. And Dick Snelling was wrong. It would have been great for Dick Snelling, but a candidate should never have control of a party.”
Snelling said thumbing noses at the national GOP now would be disastrous for Vermont Republicans. For any party, Snelling said, erecting the big tent needed to win majorities in elections means accommodating a die-hard base that, be they Democrat or Republican, tends toward ideological extremes.
“And so we shouldn’t confuse the actual party faithful with the people that end up voting Republican,” Snelling said.
Another reason not to forsake the national GOP, according to Snelling: money. Under Lindley’s aegis last year, the Vermont GOP arranged for a deal with the RNC that saw $20,000 wired monthly to the state party’s bank account. Fundraising at the organization was otherwise almost non-existent, and the cash flow allowed the party to at least retain the office space and equipment needed for a modest get-out-the-vote program.
Lindley, who has served in a variety of high-profile party posts over the decades, was elected chairman in 2010.
“Jack took over a party that was very much in debt, and rebuilt the party,” Snelling said.
The party now has two fulltime staffers, including a political director brought on by Lindley last month.
“And it’s no secret the rebuilt party came as a result of help from the Republican National Committee,” Snelling said.
But as the strategic committee led by Scott points out in its re-branding presentation, a copy of which was provided to the Vermont Press Bureau, the national GOP’s brand isn’t playing terribly well with voters right now.
One Powerpoint slide cites a Bloomberg poll conducted in February that shows 55 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Republicans, up 10 points over the same time last year. Scott and others suspect the percentage is much higher in the Green Mountains.
Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, the U.S. Senate candidates from Missouri and Indiana pilloried last summer and fall for their remarks about rape and abortion, are the kinds of characters to which Vermont Republicans will remain hostage, Scott and others say, so long as they retain ties with the RNC.
The Powerpoint presentation on the re-branding effort says that “most importantly,” the party must “distance Vermont Republicans from national Republicans.” That split, according to the presentation, is “absolutely critical if we are to regain any of our footing as a political force.”
A number of people interviewed for this story said that once the party demonstrates a shift to the middle, the fundraising problem will very quickly take care of itself.
Scott said he’s optimistic about the future of the Republican Party. Asked whether Lindley can be its leader:
“Um, I think that, um,” and here Scott pauses for a full 10 seconds. “I think he can, for now. I don’t doubt his intentions. I think he’s been working very hard to try to, I guess, re-energize the party. But we’ll see. Time will tell.”
In fact, the knives are coming out for Lindley, who is viewed by many in the reformist camp as a divisive figure ill-suited to unite the various constituencies that will be needed to restore the Republican Party to prominence.
As of now at least, Lindley won’t go quietly. He’s spent decades in Republican politics, and says the future is bright.
“I guess that’s the job of being chairman — to drive the truck down the middle of the road,” Lindley said. “We sure as hell went in the ditch over the last couple years. But hopefully we’ve got it going right now.”
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