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Discussing politics and party with the leaders of Vermont's GOP, Democrats and Progressives

A vertical stack of the logos of Vermont's major political parties: the Democrats, the state GOP, and the Progressives
Party logos courtesy of each party
Design by Matthew Smith, Vermont Public
Leaders of Vermont's Democrat, Republican and Progressive parties discuss the primary election, and the candidates and platform they'll pursue in the run-up to the state's Nov. 8 election.

Vermont voters will decide on new representation in Washington for the first time since 2006, as well as statewide offices like governor and lieutenant governor, in the November general election. This hour, we check in with leaders of the state's Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties on their candidates and platforms.

Our guests are:

Paul Dame, Vermont GOP chair

Many people would consider Christina Nolan losing to Gerald Malloy a big upset. What does that tell you about where your party is headed?

I compare that also to the other big surprise, the congressional race with Liam Madden beating out on Anya Tynio and Ericka Redic. And I think what happened there is, the Republican Party has a pretty even match between your more traditional conservatives, and folks who are really looking for somebody who they think may be the best candidate to go into the general election.

In the US Senate race, I think what happened is Gerald Malloy was able to consolidate that conservative vote, where I think a lot of the negative ads that Myers Mermel ran ended up hurting him, and Christina [Nolan]. So, I think that's sort of what happened in the Senate race.

And then in the House race, I think we had most Republicans wanted who wanted to elect a conservative woman. [Anya Tynio and Ericka Redic] had over, let's see, we had over [15,000] votes compared to Liam [Madden's] 10,000. And those two women just split the vote too evenly, it was too evenly decided between the two of them, and we didn't have one person consolidate that.

The lesson there, as we look at the results of our primary, we kind of have a couple different lanes. We have a candidate for the more conservative traditional Republican lane, you have that sort of Gov. Phil Scott [and] Sen. Joe Benning, moderate pragmatist. And then you have something new and different with Liam Madden. So, I think it shows that there's a lot more intellectual diversity in the Republican Party compared with the Democratic primary, where the most far left progressive candidate won every single race ... Democrats have rejected, they're more moderate middle where Republicans are offering have a little bit broader offering for everybody.

As the chair of the Republican Party, the Vermont GOP, could you have done a better job stepping in and not splitting those votes if the voters wanted to see a conservative woman on the ballot in November?

I think so. I haven't even finished my first year as state party chair, so we have had a tradition of the party sort of staying out of the primaries. And you we've had some talks with our executive committee about what kind of changes we want to make in the future. The Republicans don't like this sort of top-down party leadership telling everybody what to do. I think that's a huge differentiator between us and the Democrats. So it's something that we've got to do very carefully.

In the 2024 primary, [we're look at] restructuring some of the things we do to get more participation from regular Vermonters, from Republicans who may not be as involved in the in the state committee in the state party, to get a little bit of a preview and help Republican voters who show up on primary day to know which candidate is probably going to be more favored, and we think has the best success.

So, that's certainly something I'll take responsibility for. As I came in, I didn't want to rock the boat too much on that issue, with that precedent, but it's something I think we're going to take a closer look at in the future.

Liam Madden Republican primary for the US House. He's running as an independent, and said that he won't caucus with Republicans if sent to DC. You, as a party chair for the Vermont GOP, is not backing him. What went into that decision?

So to be clear, we're certainly in an unprecedented situation here, and I wanted to make sure that I got the input of the folks, the other party leadership, so we held the state committee meeting. And it was the state committee who decided, look, we've got a big tent, there's a lot of room for some ideological differences, but at the end of the day, if you want to run under the Republican label, the bare minimum there is making sure that you're going to caucus with Republicans in Congress, and Liam just wasn't willing to commit to that. And so, we decided that we wouldn't support him financially.

You said that the Republicans really wanted to see a conservative woman. Based on the results, it might seem that, actually, Vermont Republicans are not ready, and do not want, a woman, nor do they want somebody who's LGBTQ. How do you interpret that? What are the conversations that are coming from these results?

I dismiss those. Because ,like I said, more people voted for a woman in the [US House] race than for Liam [Madden], they were just more evenly split. So, I think that most Vermonters wanted a Republican woman there.

The reason that Christina [Nolan] didn't win [the US Senate primary] has anything to do with her sexual orientation. I think there was just a lot of negative attacks that were misleading. And again, I think there's a place where I take responsibility. I should have stepped into that race and called out some of that stuff, probably sooner than I did, because she was just being misrepresented. I think it's important for me, as party chair, certainly moving forward, that we shouldn't have Republicans attacking other Republicans in the primary like that. So I think that's a place where he I accept some responsibility for that. And, and would do that differently if I had an opportunity to do that in the future.

What is the future of the Republican Party?

I would say the party belongs to the people who get involved. And if you like what the party is doing, you don't need to get involved. But if you think that it needs to move in a certain direction, you could be that person and the momentum to move the party in a direction that you think it needs to go.

There's a number of places where we didn't recruit candidates that we would have liked to. And it just takes folks stepping up ... Certainly looking to 2024, I'm starting recruiting now for those races, so the party is going to reflect the people who make it up. And if you want to see a change, join us.

Jim Dandeneau, Vermont Democratic Party executive director

A race that could be very competitive for Vermont Democrats is the Lieutenant Governor's race where David Zuckerman is going to face Sen. Joe Benning. What are the benefits to Vermonters re-electing Zuckerman?

Former Lieutenant Governor Zuckerman has a long history of being elected statewide. He speaks to working Vermonters in a very effective way. And, you know, speaking personally, and speaking from the campaign operative side, the Lieutenant Governor's experience as a statewide candidate is immensely valuable on a ticket full of first-time statewide candidates. We're very happy that he's providing mentorship, he's taking that mentorship role seriously. And he's being a very helpful and effective member of our team.

Another person that I want to talk about is Brenda Siegel. She has an uphill battle taking on popular incumbent Gov. Phil Scott. What's your role in supporting her to beat Gov. Scott?

We're providing assistance with talking to voters, we're helping her get her campaign moving. We're working with her on staffing. We're providing some additional resources, and we're coordinating with her on messaging. You know, Brenda is really effective advocate for the neediest Vermonters. She has a long history of fighting for people without a voice. And we're really excited about her being able to bring that voice to the ticket.

She's also somebody who's beat Phil Scott before—she's beat him on the emergency housing issue—and that's not something a lot of people can say over the course of Governor Scott's 20-year career in politics. So, we're feeling pretty good about having her on our ticket.

So, you know, the question—and this is a question we're going to be bringing to voters throughout the campaign—is, what's better now than it was six years ago? What has Gov. Scott done to improve your life as governor? And why not take a look at somebody else?

Are you going to push for Zuckerman and Siegel to campaign together?

We're working on getting a whole slate to campaign together. The benefit to having such a vibrant ticket is, we can talk to a lot of different people at the same time, and when we do come together, we can reinforce everybody's message. So, there are going to be times where everybody campaigns together, but we're also going to use everybody effectively moving around the various corners of the state ... All the way down to State House and even some of our county-wide candidates like high bailiff and state's attorney.

Now, Balint is a candidate that we can easily describe as a Progressive, and to the left of a candidate like Peter Welch—

I don't think you can describe her as to the left of Peter Welch.

Peter Welch was certainly the [Democratic] nominee for US House in 2016. He is definitely someone who appeals to a broad spectrum of the electorate, but so does Sen. Balint ... I don't think you can pin an ideology on to the primary result there. I do think that there are echoes in what Sen. Balint is doing to what Congressman Welch has done in the past. And I think that ultimately, the primary was about our shared values, right? Everybody in the Democratic tent has the same values. We just disagree—publicly, sometimes—about how to get there. And I think that you see that, with everybody coming together after the primary to support the nominees, very quickly. There was no arguing, there was no hard feelings about it. Everybody's on the same page here, because we all want to get the same things done. We all want to make Vermont more affordable for working people. We all want to make Vermont more easier to live in. And we all want to protect Vermont from the ravages of climate change.

There were two women of color in the US House race. State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Sianay Chase Clifford. They both ended up being the ones to drop out of the race. Do you think you could have given more support, or stepped in more, to ensure that these women of color had a better chance of winning?

By the time I came on board as Executive Director, Sen. Ram Hinsdale had already dropped out of the race. So, but cultivating candidates of color is one of our top priorities moving forward. It's something that we haven't done a great job of, historically, but we're doing a lot better now. And I think, if you look at some of these down-ballot races, we have a fantastic slate of candidates. And we are starting to see more and more Vermonters of color get involved and put their names up for office, and we are planning on supporting them with everything that we've got.

Anthony Pollina, chair of the Vermont Progressive Party

All the Progressives candidates are withdrawing from their statewide races. Why is that?

It's a couple of things. I want to put some perspective on this conversation, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have been in existence in Vermont for a couple hundred years, and the Progressive Party has been in existence for about 21 years. In that time, we've actually built the most successful third-party political movement in the country.

Keep in mind that the Vermont Democrats took until 1960 or so to get somebody as the Democratic governor in the State of Vermont. We also know that Gov. Phil Scott is the only legitimate statewide candidate that the Republicans have had in many years. So, it takes time to build a political movement and political party, and we're pretty happy with where we stand right now.

So why withdraw from the statewide offices?

Well, we have limited resources. And our position has been that we need to build from the ground up, and we need to support people on the local level, more than on the state level.

So, we decided that, given our limited resources, we should put our money into where it would be used best, and put our energy where it'd be used best. I would also mentioned that the candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor and Auditor of Accounts are going to be running under both labels, Democrat and Progressive labels. So, those folks have come to the Progressive Party and asked for our support.

And we decided we will support those candidates. So, it's not like we're not going to be involved and not showing support for candidates that are running statewide. We just have to make sure that we marshal our resources in the way that makes the most sense for us in the long term.

Can the Progressive label turn off the middle of the road voters you hope to attract?

I don't necessarily think so. Obviously, you can't speak for everybody. Some people feel that way. Other people don't. Look at the example of Bernie Sanders, for example, one of the foundation pieces of the Progressive Party. I mean, he speaks to people across the political spectrum. And I think other Progressives do the same. So, it's not as if we can be "more" progressive, be "too" progressive. Does "too progressive" mean you believe in supporting organized labor? Does "too progressive" mean that you support climate fighting climate change? Is being "too progressive" mean that you're consistently asking for changes to the healthcare system, so that we can have universal health care?

I think it depends on what those voters feel about the person that's espousing those views. But I think that most of the progressive issues that people are gravitating towards these days are issues that are important to all Vermonters and, you know, Progressives have haven't moved over the years. More Vermonters have moved in a direction of the Progressive Party and Progressive candidates.

I think the most notable people you're not endorsing our Rep. Peter Welch and state Sen. Balint?

Well, I think two things. One is, we have not necessarily been very involved in the national races over the years, to be quite honest, because those tend to be big money races. I think a lot of Progressives will be supporting Peter Welch and certainly Becca Balint, because they believe that they're the best candidates for those jobs.

But again, it's not a question of whether we support those people or not. It's a question of having the resources to make an impact on those races. And as I said, in the 20 years that we've been in existence, we've built the most successful third party political movement in the country. But, it doesn't allow us to spend huge amounts of money on national races. So, people will be voting, I'm sure for Becca Balint and for Peter Welch, but it's just not in our nature to get too involved in those national races, because they're sort of beyond our reach, in a sense, and they have big political machines that are helping them operate their campaigns, and we'll cast our votes where we cast our votes, but we're not going to get totally involved in those campaigns.

The highest office your party has held on the statewide level is Lieutenant Governor, through former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. Do you think that that makes your party successful?

I think that success is a long-term thing. It's a long-term prospect. It's a step in the right direction. I think having electing David Zuckerman as Lieutenant Governor allows the Progressive voice to be heard loud and clear in Montpelier and around the state, and to use that office as an organizing platform as well, to get more people involved in political process.

So, I think it is a success. It's not the success. But it's a step in the process of looking for success.

Again, we believe that political dynamics and political change is a long-term process, a long-term project. And you can't necessarily measure it year to year, you measured over time. And we're pretty happy with where we are right now. But I think electing statewide office holders is a step in that process. But the real success indicator is going to be when we have paid family leave, and we have universal health care, when we have more support for organized labor. That's what success will look like.

Broadcast live at noon on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.