Whoever it is that Republicans settle on to run for governor this year, it appears their main focus will be on rebuilding the party by winning races for the Legislature.
One by one, potential candidates for governor have declared they are not willing to take up the mantle this year. Rep. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe has said she decided now is not the right time for her to run. Randy Brock, the former auditor and senator who ran for governor two years ago, bowed out earlier this week.
That leaves Scott Milne of Pomfret, who owns a travel agency but who lacks political experience. It appears party leaders would prefer him to Emily Peyton, the gadfly from Putney who has decided to run as a Republican this year. But as the deadline approached, it was not clear that Milne was keen on taking up the role of sacrificial lamb.
Given this dire scenario, the two presiding leaders of the party have decided to focus on the arena where they could begin to build a future for their party: the Legislature. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and party Chairman David Sunderland have decided that they are not going to flog the ideological issues that have caused many Vermonters to turn away from the party. Instead they will focus on legislative races where they can begin to build a bench of future leaders.
Vermont Republicans have found that dwelling on divisive social issues is not a winning strategy. The burst of anger that followed passage of civil unions legislation 14 years ago briefly cost the Democrats control of the House. But over time Vermonters set aside their hostility to marriage equality, and Republican power faded.
In a remarkable and historic reversal, opposition to gay marriage has also faded as a winning issue for Republicans nationally, and state after state has embraced, or grudgingly accepted, marriage equality.
Meanwhile, Republicans at the national level continue to pursue an agenda out of sync with the ideas of most Vermonters. Denial of climate change is a losing proposition among Vermont voters, even as Republicans nationally have adopted ignorance of science virtually as a party plank. Hostility to immigrants, central to the national party, runs counter to Vermonters’ welcoming attitude toward the farm workers upon which the dairy industry depends.
So what role can Vermont Republicans carve out for themselves in a world dominated by Democrats?
It turns out Democrats do not have all the answers. If Republicans were able to enlarge their numbers in the Legislature, their voices would gain added influence, and in several areas they would be in a position to enlarge the discussion in a positive way.
Democrats floundered this year on the topic of education, and Republicans did little better. Both parties ought to open themselves to voices able to focus on the need to improve education at the community level, rather than hatching schemes to impose change from the top down.
On health care, Democrats have a tiger by the tail. They have launched an ambitious project to create a single-payer health care system by 2017, and the debate about how to do it will dominate the next two years.
If Republicans eschew a narrowly obstructionist position and take a positive role in building a system that works, they could emerge from the debate as respected leaders. Sen. Kevin Mullin has shown he understands how a legislator from the minority can make a positive contribution.
In the debate about child welfare and the operations of the Department for Children and Families, Republicans in the Legislature could show they are interested in more than merely cutting programs. A searching examination of the protocols and procedures of DCF ought to be of interest to both parties, and Republican members could demonstrate that they understand the need to make government work effectively to protect children.
These are not partisan issues. These are issues about making government work, which at one time was the domain of Republicans. While nationally the party has focused on destroying programs, the new Republican Party in Vermont can develop new leadership by showing it is interested in saving them.
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