MONTPELIER — On the surface at least, things couldn’t be going much better for Vermont Democrats.
They control the governor’s seat, have an iron grip on the Legislature, and members of their party occupy four of Vermont’s five other statewide elected offices.
Adding to their good fortune, Vermont Republicans, for now at least, have opted to wage their battle of ideas not against the dominant Democrats, but between competing blocs of their own fractured party.
As Democratic leaders survey the path toward Election Day 2014, however, they’re wary of pitfalls along the way.
And while the Democrats’ party apparatus in every respect outmatches that of their rivals, Dottie Deans, chairwoman of the organization, says she takes nothing for granted.
“You’re always going to be challenged ... especially going into 2014, which is a year without the presidential or senatorial elections, which historically for Republicans is when they come through with the voting,” Deans says.
Potentially complicating the campaign season for Democrats next year is the painful roll-out of the party’s signature health care reform initiative.
If technical problems persist, or if a critical mass of Vermonters find life less palatable under the exchange than they did before it, then Democrats could have a particularly tough go of it next November — especially in the purple districts they’ve won by narrow margins in the last two election cycles.
“I think our biggest liability is that we have a super-majority status,” says Ryan Emerson, communications director for the Vermont Democratic Party. “The great thing about that is we can take credit for a lot of progress that has been made. The bad news is that on issues where the average voter feels like the ball has been dropped, that can also be dropped on us.”
Deans, who began her ascent within the party as a town chairwoman from Pomfret and was re-elected to the VDP’s top post a week ago, says the party’s robust internal operations will help it withstand whatever political adversity might befall it between now and Election Day.
“It takes individuals doing the work behind the scenes in order to have the viable, strong party we need to have,” Deans says. “And our staff has been working nonstop.”
The strength of that apparatus has lent the party its most significant operational advantages over the GOP, and given Democrats a leg up on their Republican competitors in voter identification, database infrastructure, field organization and recruiting.
According to its latest federal filings, the Vermont Democratic Party has raised more $154,000 since January, which, combined with the $130,000 it had left over from the last two-year cycle, has underwritten a staff that includes an executive director, a data director and a communications director. The party until recently had a paid field director as well.
Vermont Republicans have taken in less than $30,000 since the last election cycle. Between 2010 and 2012, the Democrats pulled in more than $1 million from donors and out-raised the Republicans by a five-to-one margin.
Democrats have used their resources to refine the quality of a voter checklist that was already far more evolved than the one used by the GOP. And Emerson says the party, in conjunction with the Vermont Democratic House Campaign, has already identified battleground districts in the House, and begun recruiting candidates to campaign there.
The party’s ground game, which can make or break elections when it comes time to get out the vote, is also being cultivated, Emerson says.
He says fresh blood on the state committee and among county chairs — the party as of this fall has new faces in six of its 14 county chairs — has revitalized the grassroots.
“Younger folks who have been involved in campaigning but not involved at the town level and county committee levels, we’ve asked them to become involved … and there’s a lot of excitement and energy from them moving forward,” Emerson says.
While the party has had to contend with internal squabbles, notably over issues like mountaintop wind development and the merits of raising taxes on wealthier residents to support programs for the poor, Emerson and Deans say the VDP has sought to mediate those quarrels in ways that don’t pull at the seams of the broader Democratic alliance.
“We’re not going to be able to make everyone happy all the time,” Emerson says. “But everyone on the committee, even though they bring strong opinions, are all adults. And they’re able to talk to each other instead of at or over each other.”
Democrats occupy 96 seats in the House, and wield a super-majority in the 30-member Senate. It’s a lofty perch from which a party is likelier to fall than to climb.
But Emerson says the plan is to make further gains in 2014, and broaden influence on a state government over which it already has near unilateral control.
“The goal ultimately is not just to keep seats but to pick up some as well,” Emerson says. “And that’s what we’re working toward.”MORE IN Vermont News
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