MONTPELIER — At the Vermont Republican Party’s annual convention Saturday, Tom Salmon was the lone speaker to muster a kind word for Democrats.
“I grew up with two Democratic parents. And those Democratic parents taught me to tell the truth and to hold myself accountable,” the Republican auditor said in a speech. “And, as a result, I became a Republican.”
The 431 GOP delegates packed into the Montpelier High School auditorium erupted into cheers and laughter. But Salmon’s comedic jab underscored the visceral fear here of another two-year cycle under Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Republican candidate for governor Randy Brock said, “I believe that duty compels us to defeat incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin … so we can pull Vermont back from the edge of the abyss where Peter Shumlin and his cohorts have taken it.”
In what party veterans said was the best-attended Republican convention in memory, Brock kicked off in earnest a gubernatorial campaign that will try to turn Shumlin’s signature policy issue — single-payer health care — into a political liability.
“I call it, simply, ‘Titanic Care,’” Brock said during a 10-minute speech he’ll no doubt take to the stump. “It’s huge. It’s new. It’s untested. It’s got an overconfident captain who ignores predictable dangers just below the surface, and it’s going to sink.”
With a snappy new website and a television ad that hit network airwaves Saturday, Brock has ushered in a 2012 election cycle in which Republicans start out as decided underdogs. Friday, one of only two statewide GOP officeholders announced he won’t be seeking re-election.
Salmon, the three-term auditor who switched parties midway through his second term, said financial demands — he has two children nearing college age — require him to find higher-paying work elsewhere. That leaves Lt. Gov. Phil Scott as the Republicans’ only incumbent in statewide office.
Wendy Wilton has announced her bid for treasurer, and Brock will fill the top of the ticket. But the GOP has yet even to field candidates for the positions of attorney general, auditor and secretary of state. Sen. Vince Illuzzi, representing Essex and Orleans counties, said Friday he’ll likely run for either attorney general or auditor, and Rutland County Sen. Kevin Mullin said he’s interested in the auditor’s job.
The party lacks name-brand candidates for federal races as well, where relative unknowns John MacGovern and Brooke Paige are vying to unseat U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders. Former Hartford Select Board member Mark Donka, meanwhile, will run against Democratic Rep. Peter Welch.
The GOP is also struggling to field candidates for the Vermont House and Senate, where Republicans have been outnumbered by a roughly 3-to-1 margin over the last four years. “It’s hard to find people, especially when they don’t know how long the session is going to be and they have to feed their families and hold down regular day jobs,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner.
GOP Chairman Jack Lindley has talked a big game of late about retaking the House and Senate. Turner said he’s being more realistic about his party’s chance in November. “I’m focused hard on keeping the numbers we’ve got, so really anything over 48 is a win,” Turner said. “But if we could get to 60, I’d be extremely happy.”
Vermont voters rarely show incumbent governors the door, and Brock is generally regarded as a long shot in November. But the candidate is hoping that his compelling back story — it’s the subject of his new 30-second television spot — will earn him notice from moderate Democrats and independents on the fence about publicly financed health care.
“Peter Shumlin is very beatable,” Brock said. “Many people assumed Peter was a moderate when they voted for him in 2010. They’re regretting that decision now, every day, because he has been the most liberal governor in our history.”
Brock, a Middlebury College graduate and Vietnam War veteran, will talk this summer about how 1960s-era racism helped forge his character.
The TV spot recalls Brock’s assignment to a base in Kentucky during his tenure in the U.S. Army, where, “because of the color of his skin,” he was unable to rent an apartment. His parents, Brock said, taught him there was “a direct correlation between how hard you work and what you get in return.”
“Vermont is the right place for a man who was brought up with those values, because there are so many Vermonters who share those same values,” he said.
Former Gov. James Douglas, permanent chairman to the convention, served as the master of ceremonies and warmed up the crowd.
“We’ve got a Legislature that seems to want the state to take over health insurance programs ... which would inevitably lead to taxes on payroll … and higher costs for small businesses in the state,” Douglas said. “I think the need for change is compelling, and I’m confident based on the enthusiasm I see here this morning that 2012 is going to bring change to the Golden Dome in Montpelier.”
If Republicans can’t win numbers in the House and Senate, Brock said, then even a victory at the top of the ticket could be empty. “If I’m elected governor and the Legislature stays as unbalanced as it is, my options are going to be severely limited,” he said.
It wasn’t all state politics in Montpelier, where scores of bright blue “Romney” signs lined the streets near the high school. While the former Massachusetts governor was stumping for the presidency elsewhere, Vermonters got a surrogate with the same last name.
Tagg Romney, the eldest of the candidate’s five children, urged the party to unite around his father.
“Their goal, the Democrats’ goal, is going to be to divide us,” he said. “They don’t want to run on their record. … They want to talk about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. They want to invent a war on women that doesn’t exist. They want to do things that separate us rather than unite us.”
Romney’s pleas weren’t enough to dissuade supporters of Ron Paul from making their voices heard Saturday. During the early hours of the convention, rumors swirled of an attempted coup by followers of the Texas congressman. The Paul contingent managed to win some speaking time by nominating from its ranks candidates for national committee chairman and chairwoman. Paul won 25 percent of the vote in Vermont’s March presidential primary, second to Romney’s 39 percent.
“Vermont was Ron Paul’s shining victory,” said Jessica Bernier, a Paul supporter nominated to serve as committee chairwoman. “I don’t think this party has been inclusive to young people and their ideas and what they need, and to inspire people to not be partners in crime.”MORE IN Vermont NewsA seven-hour post-polygraph interrogation by Vermont State Police caused Dennis Duby Jr. Full StoryWINOOSKI ó Gov. Full Story
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