After midterm setbacks, Vermont Republicans look to Phil Scott to rebuild broken party
Republicans will have fewer members in the Vermont House of Representatives next year than at any time in state history, and their disappointing performance on Election Day is raising questions about the party’s future in Vermont.
But the Republican with the best shot at reenergizing the Vermont GOP doesn’t seem too interested in reconnecting with its conservative base.
The handful of Republicans who showed up for the GOP’s election night watch party in Barre were looking for something to celebrate. So when results for the governor’s race from Barre Town came in, Tom Koch, a former Barre Town representative and one of the party’s elder statesmen, strode to the microphone to report the good news.
“Here’s one that’ll blow your socks off — Phil Scott 3,040, Brenda Siegel 458,” Koch said proudly.
Moments of triumph would be few and far between for the GOP that evening, so it was understandable that committed Republicans like Koch were hoping their lone star — Gov. Phil Scott — would stop by to lift spirits in the red-carpeted ballroom at the Elks Lodge.
"They're a lot of friends of mine who were Republicans, still consider themselves Republicans, that don’t want to be associated with the party.”Gov. Phil Scott
Informed that Scott would not, in fact, be dropping by that night, Koch sighed.
“Well, I think we need to come together as a party, and everybody has to work together,” Koch said. “I was hoping that the governor would show up.”
Six miles away, Scott was enjoying his 47-percentage-point win over Democrat Brenda Siegel at a private event in an office building across from the Berlin Airport.
There was still plenty of time for Scott to make the 10-minute trek to Barre for what would’ve been a hero’s welcome at the Elks Lodge. But Scott wasn’t interested.
“We don’t have a straight line of communication in some respects,” Scott told Vermont Public. “I had no idea they were going there.”
In any event, Scott said the people he’d invited to join him on that special evening wouldn’t have much interest in mingling with the kind of folks who show up for election night parties hosted by the Vermont GOP.
“Many of them, most of them, probably wouldn’t have attended the GOP event there, because there are some there who they don’t agree with their approach, their philosophies,” he said.
Scott has been at odds with more conservative members of the Republican Party in Vermont for the better part of a decade.
The arrival of Donald Trump, in 2016, heightened the contrast.
While former party leaders courted Trump supporters with MAGA-infused newsletters, email alerts and fundraising pleas, Scott used the statewide stage to condemn the former president. After pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, Scott called for the former president to be removed from office.
“There are a lot of Republicans out there — they're a lot of friends of mine who were Republicans, still consider themselves Republicans — that don’t want to be associated with the party,” Scott said.
That Scott has little tolerance for election-denying Trump supporters is old news. That many hardcore Trump supporters have written off Scott is also well-documented.
The dynamic hasn't been a political liability for Scott to date, because he tends to draw more support from Democrats than Republicans. The question now is what role Scott will play in resurrecting his party from the unprecedented depths to which it’s fallen, and whether he has the ability or interest to reunite its divided camps.
"Even people that I know who have been very strong Trump supporters in the past recognize that we can do better. There’s just too much baggage that goes with him.”Paul Dame, chair of the Vermont Republican Party
Ericka Redic, a Republican who ran for Congress this year, said Scott’s no-show at the GOP’s election night party speaks to direness of the situation.
“I think that it demonstrates how fractured and broken the Republican Party here is in Vermont,” Redic said.
Redic said Scott’s certainly entitled to his opinion about Trump, and the Republican voters who continue to follow him.
By forsaking them altogether though, Redic said Scott imperils the Republican ideals that require a big-tent party to flourish.
“And that’s not just a critique on the governor, that’s a critique on everyone who has taken their ball and gone home,” she said. “If you have a family member or somebody that you believe is lost and following somebody who’s dangerous, the way to persuade them otherwise is not to abandon them.”
Matt Dickinson, professor of political science at Middlebury College, said Scott’s election night snub of the GOP was an odd calculus for the de facto leader of the Republican Party in Vermont.
“It seems to me that it’s a small gesture to make. You’re the head of the ticket. You are the most prominent Republican,” Dickinson said.
If Republicans are looking for a unifying force to revitalize a party in decline, then Dickinson said Scott seems the obvious figure to do it.
“The best way to do that is to start showing solidarity with other candidates,” Dickinson said. “And I thought this was a missed opportunity, and a surprising one.”
There are some clear signs that the Vermont GOP is beginning to move in Scott’s direction. About a year ago, Paul Dame took over the chairmanship of the party from his decidedly pro-Trump predecessor.
Dame has never been a Trump guy. But he’s amped up his criticism of the former president since the party’s midterm disasters in Vermont and other states.
“Even people that I know who have been very strong Trump supporters in the past recognize that we can do better,” Dame said. “There’s just too much baggage that goes with him.”
Trump’s latest bid for the White House means he’ll continue to divide Republicans in Vermont and beyond. But Dame thinks another Trump presidential run might be the best way to move past the Trump era.
“Maybe the best way to move on from Trump is for him to run and to lose in the primary," Dame said. "I think that could be a good outcome, because I think that Republicans do need to move on, we can’t keep looking backwards.”
Koch served as a Republican lawmaker in the Vermont House for nearly a quarter century. Having witnessed the arc of history in Montpelier, he said he has a pretty good read on how Republicans can be successful in this state.
“Vermont basically is a somewhat-left-of-center state,” he said. “And I think a good, moderate Republican can win.”
But just as moderate Democrats need support from progressives to win consistently, Koch said, moderate Republicans can’t reliably succeed in the future without buy-in from harder-right conservatives.
Koch won’t be supporting Trump in 2024. But he said he’s ready to sit down and work with people who are.
“Some of them aren’t willing to sit down with me,” he said. “But that’s their choice.”
It’s a choice Republicans of all stripes will have to make as they consider the future of their party in Vermont.
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