The schism now dividing the Vermont Republican Party has roots that go back for years, though the party’s recent travails have worsened the problem.
A Herald story Wednesday described the differing views of the party’s highest elected official, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, and the party’s state chairman, Jack Lindley. Scott has been leading a committee of Republicans with the aim of charting a course for the party independent of the national party. The rightward drift of the national party has alienated many Vermont Republicans from the GOP label, according to Scott, making it increasingly difficult for Republican candidates to win election.
Lindley, a longtime party stalwart, believes the party must remain true to its core principles and cannot afford to alienate the national apparatus, which provides crucial funding for the state party. As it seeks the votes of middle-of-the-road or independent voters, the party must not abandon its base, Lindley says.
The party’s great divide could be seen in two back-to-back elections held a little more than a decade ago. In 2000 Gov. Howard Dean ran for re-election against Ruth Dwyer in a race that was one of the most bitterly divisive in recent years. Dean held on to win.
Two years later, Jim Douglas, a Republican, was running against longtime senator Doug Racine, and Douglas won. He went on to win re-election three times even as the Democrats were strengthening their hold on the Legislature.
The Republicans associated with Scott’s committee include prominent members of the Legislature, Reps. Heidi Scheuermann and Patti Komline and Sen. Joe Benning, as well as a prominent member of the Douglas administration, Jason Gibbs. The group is mostly moderate and includes members of the business community.
Criticism of Scott’s group has originated with True North Reports, a conservative online site that has hewed to a harder ideological line and which owes its founding to Burlington millionaire Lenore Broughton, who laid out about $1 million for candidates in the last election. The views of the reclusive Broughton are more in line with the conservative platform of the national party on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Lindley has more or less embraced the criticism from True North of Scott’s efforts to take the party in a new direction.
In a sense, you could say that Scott represents the Douglas wing of the party, and Lindley represents the Dwyer wing.
You could also say that Jim Douglas appears to line up with the Douglas wing. In a recent commentary on Vermont Public Radio he described two visions of where the party might go. “One is of ideological purity,” he said. “The other is of broadening the party base.”
He said mutual respect was important. “Republicans have strongly held views on many controversial topics, such as gay marriage, abortion, physician-assisted suicide and gun control. But surely we can acknowledge all points of view on these issues and still work together to achieve our common goals.”
The party’s schism goes back before the Douglas and Dwyer races. Vermont’s beloved governor and senator, George Aiken, took on the party establishment to practice the kind of moderate Republican politics that used to characterize the party of the Northeast. His political progeny included Republicans such as Robert Stafford, Richard Snelling and James Jeffords. They were all known as strong defenders of the environment, education and civil rights.
But over the years the Republican Party was no longer so receptive to the politics of Northeastern Republicans, and the party became dominated by the conservative politics of the South. Jeffords’ defection from the party in 2001 became a harbinger of things to come. Lately, hostility to gays, women, immigrants, minorities and the poor has tainted the party, and as much as party leaders try to deny it, that hostility was crucial to the party’s losses in 2012.
It’s unclear whether the party can bridge the gap between its conservative establishment and moderates such as Scott, who are looking for a political home. But by trying to find a new direction, Scott and like-minded Republicans might actually be doing the national party a favor. So far the only solution national Republicans have been able to embrace has to do with what they call atmospherics or messaging. It appears that Phil Scott and friends know it goes deeper than that.
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