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GOP Makes Gains In House, Senate, Hopes For Agenda Reset

After Tuesday’s election, Republicans will pick up at least nine seats in the Vermont House, and two seats in the Senate. And leaders of the GOP say the gains will give them greater influence over the legislative debate in Montpelier.

Of all the election night surprises on Tuesday – and there were lots of them – perhaps none will reverberate in the Legislature next year as much as the shocker that came out of a four-town district in Addison County farm country.  

That’s where Republican Fred Baser ousted Mike Fisher, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Health Care.

“The first town that came in was Monkton – I remember that,” Baser said. “And I think I was fourth.”

Baser would rally to unseat a key member of the Democrats’ leadership team -- one who has overseen the Legislature’s handling of the troubled rollout of the state’s new online health insurance exchange.

"There is a lot of frustration out there around the functioning of Vermont Health Connect. And there's a lot of basic anxiety about the economics of affordability in this state." - Mike Fisher, defeated Democratic chairman of the House Health Care Committee

  “There was a lot of frustration out there – there is a lot of frustration out there – around the functioning of Vermont Health Connect,” Fisher says. “And there’s a lot of basic anxiety about the economics of affordability in this state.”

Fisher’s loss will certainly lead to some soul-searching over health reform among Democrats. But Baser and other Republicans say health care isn’t even the top liability of the majority party.

“Of the things that people made comment to me about in my district, health care was probably number three, actually,” says Baser.

Voters in his and Fisher’s district were also considering a $32.6 million bond vote for the local high school.

“The number one concern I had from people were property taxes, and the affordability of living in the state,” Baser says. “I heard that time and time again from people, how hard it was for them to make ends meet.”

As Gov. Peter Shumlin vows to reassess his priorities after barely escaping with his political life Tuesday, the Vermont GOP says it’ll use results from this Republican mini-wave to reshape the debate in Montpelier.

Republicans are hardly resurgent. Despite Tuesday’s successes, they still are stuck with super-minority status in the Senate, and are outnumbered by about a two-and-a-half-to-one margin in the House.

But with nine new members – they’ll go from 45 to 54 – House Minority Leader Don Turner says that means about one extra Republican on every House committee. And he says that’ll make a difference.

“Historically in my leadership tenure, I’ve kind of been reactive. I mean with so few people, we put amendments forth that wouldn’t even be discussed and they’d be voted down,” Turner says. “We put bill proposals forth, they’d sit on the wall and never get out because you had two or three or four people in the committee.”

House Majority Leader Willem Jewett says Democrats were well aware of the angst among voters still struggling economically. And the issue that won Republicans so much traction in these mid-term elections – rising property taxes – is one that Jewett says Democrats will be ready to tackle come January.

“I do think that property tax has risen to a level of priority that it hasn’t had previously,” Jewett says.

Former legislator Dustin Degree is responsible for the Republicans’ Senate gain in Franklin County. Degree says the party’s numbers may still be small. But if it can make inroads with moderate Democrats, then Degree says Republicans could become a political force to be reckoned with.

“And I think that if we can form a coalition on some of the more important stuff then, yeah, we might be able to make a difference this year,” Degree says.

Republicans picked up Senate seats in Franklin and Rutland counties. The GOP earned gains in the House with wins in St. Johnsbury, St. Albans, Essex, Sheldon, Killington, and Westford.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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