ESSEX JUNCTION — “Candidates matter.”
That was the message from the Republican governor of New Jersey this week as he regaled nearly 700 members of the Vermont GOP with the story of his own unlikely rise in a state where politics tend to run the same shade of blue as in Vermont.
“Candidates matter more than money. Candidates matter more than data mining. … Candidates matter more than TV commercials, and they matter more than mail pieces, and they matter more than those incredibly annoying automated phone calls. They matter more than any of that,” Christie said Wednesday night.
Media were barred from the fundraising gala at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction, but an audio recorder belonging to the Vermont Press Bureau made it past the gates. In addition to Christie, the recording captured speeches by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, who were among the lead organizers of an event they say marked the dawn of a new era in the Vermont Republican Party.
“What I see tonight is the beginning of that change, a revitalization of our party that will ensure success in 2014 and beyond,” said Scheuermann.
Her optimism comes despite dismal showings in the last two election cycles for Vermont Republicans, who have sunk to super-minority status in the Legislature since losing their grip on the governor’s seat in 2010.
“It’s been a difficult few years … for Vermont Republicans. There’s no doubt about that,” Scheuermann said. “Even more troubling, however, is that the result of these difficulties is a very problematic direction in which our state is headed. And while we fought for fiscally responsible policies that would bring opportunity and prosperity to Vermonters, our colleagues in Montpelier too often go out of their way to pass legislation that drives up the cost of living in our state.”
No matter, Christie said: The future of the Vermont GOP will be bright, if only it can find candidates like him to buck the odds. And he said his own rags-to-political-riches story offers a blueprint for GOP efforts in Vermont and elsewhere.
Christie said New Jersey might have been bluer than Vermont before his arrival on the scene — the state hadn’t elected a Republican to statewide office for 12 years before he ran in 2009 and hadn’t put an “R” in the U.S. Senate since 1972. Just a year before his election, Christie said, the voters of New Jersey gave Barack Obama a 16-point win over John McCain.
Christie said when it comes to elections, however, voters look at character first and issues second.
“See, there are some people running around in the press right now saying our party has a problem with its brand, that we’re not relating to folks. … It’s not our party’s problem, it’s our candidates’ problem,” Christie said.
“See, a party’s nothing more than a collection of principles and a collection of candidates and officeholders,” he said. “There is nothing that is wrong with the Vermont Republican Party that cannot be fixed by an outstanding candidate for governor or for United States Senate or anything else. And it’s not like New Jersey, where you have to go back to relative ancient history to find a Republican governor. He’s sitting right in front of you.”
Christie was referring to former Gov. James Douglas, who was in attendance Wednesday.
“The people of Vermont voted for him again and again and again. Why? Because they trusted him, and because they felt like he trusted them. Because they felt like he was a truth teller, because they believe he cared about them and could relate to the problems and challenges that they had in their families,” Christie said.
“See, I don’t believe that folks elect folks based upon a checklist of issues,” he said. “The issues matter, believe me. They matter a lot. I’m not trying to minimize it. But you don’t get to the issues if you don’t first make the decision that the person talking about those issues is believable and reliable and compassionate and understanding and willing to give everyone who cares about the state a seat at the table. Once you get by that, then they’ll look at issues too. But if you don’t get by that, they’re never going to consider voting for you.”
Christie said the answer to the Vermont GOP’s future might well have been sitting in the room that night.
“Now, I’ve heard a lot about the lieutenant governor. I have a number of people tonight who I’ve met that told me the future of Vermont and its Republican Party is with our lieutenant governor,” Christie said.
That lieutenant governor, Phil Scott, is the state’s only Republican statewide officeholder. But Scott has already said he’s not interested in challenging second-term Democrat Peter Shumlin for the job in 2014.
Scott earlier this year led the charge to replace leadership at the Vermont Republican Party, saying the GOP needed to “rebrand” itself with populist messaging on jobs, taxes and the economy.
He told the crowd Wednesday: “Tonight is the start of a new chapter for the Vermont Republican Party, for Vermonters and, perhaps most importantly, for Vermont’s children. … Tonight’s event is the first step on the critical campaign to restore balance and common sense in Montpelier.”
After extolling the buy-local ethos that guided the event’s organizers (“to the greatest extent possible, everything is local — the food, the spirits, even the 52-pound turkey supplied by none other than my good friend, Sen. Dick Mazza”) Scott shared his hopes for the future of the GOP, without mentioning any specific issue or policy.
“In the same way that buying local isn’t just for hippies anymore, I think that tonight shows that hope and change aren’t words for just one party anymore either,” Scott said. “Common sense and reason are qualities that should be expected in all of our leaders, not just of one party or another. There are a lot of Vermonters you see packed into this room, under this big tent.”
Noting the presence of a few Democrats, Scott said that “whether you’re here because you share our energy or because you want to hear Gov. Christie speak, or simply because you’re curious, we’re very glad you joined us.”
“We all care about Vermont, we care about Vermont’s families, and we care about the economic future of our children, and our children’s children,” Scott said. “We can accomplish so much if we continue to listen to each other and learn from each other. We need to be the voice of reason, putting real and relevant solutions on the table, not just talking about how others are failing.”
Christie said that if Vermont Republicans ever hope to reclaim their former political dominance, they will need to “show up in places that are uncomfortable.”
“See, Republicans, we go to every chamber of commerce lunch and dinner that’s run, and it feels good, doesn’t it? Right? I go to a chamber of commerce anywhere in New Jersey or anywhere in America, and I get on the microphone and people are going wild. They love us! And when you’re the guy standing up there, it feels great. They love me!” Christie said.
“Guess what? Most of them are voting for us anyway. Should we go to the chamber of commerce? Of course we should. But if we stop there, we’re never going to be a majority party. Never. I don’t care whether you’re talking about Vermont or New Jersey, or when you’re talking about Ohio or Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin ...”
Christie, the newly minted head of the Republican Governors Association and a prospective presidential candidate in 2016, said his ability to win a majority of Latino voters in last month’s gubernatorial race in New Jersey proves the ceiling for the GOP is high.
“We better start going into communities where African-Americans and Latinos live and work every day. And we’ve got a great story about our principles to tell those folks,” Christie said.
“But I will tell you this, if we don’t show up to show them not only do we want to share our ideas, but that we want to listen to them, they’re never going to vote for us. We’ve got to show up to places where Democrats reside as well, because there’s lots of Democrats, I know, over the years, who voted for Douglas. Had to have — wouldn’t have been governor” without them.
Organizers said Wednesday’s event, in which donors could pay as much as $10,000 for special access to Christie, might raise as much as $300,000 for the Vermont GOP, money the financially strapped organization needs badly heading into 2014.
Christie said his support of the Vermont GOP didn’t need to end with his speech.
“So it’s time for all of you to use the momentum ... from tonight to get great candidates on the ballot,” he said. “And I will promise you this: You get great Republican candidates on this ballot for 2014, you will see me back here helping that person get elected.”
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