The question was first posed by Vermont Pundit Laureate Eric Davis in the wake of the November election, which saw the VTGOP win only one statewide race and lose ground in the House and Senate. It was picked up by the Freeploid in an article published on November 12.
There are valid reasons for asking the question. The VTGOP fielded an incredibly weak slate, and ran a campaign seemingly designed to turn off voters in the center and center-left. Party leaders admit they are underfunded and disorganized, years behind the Democrats in the nuts-and-bolts of politics. Its only prominent statewide figure, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, is a self-described moderate who might decide to go independent if he decides to run for Governor at all.
So it’s a legitimate question. But if you ask me, the answer is no. Right now, it seems almost impossible for the Republicans to win a statewide race. But forever is a very long time. I can see at least four conditions under which the Republicans could retake the corner office.
1. Lengthy tenure leads to complacency. Mismanagement, if not outright corruption, sets in. The dominant party fails to notice until it gets spanked by the voters at least once. Massachusetts is a classic example: complacency led to featherbedding and influence-peddling. Pretty soon, the bluest of states has a series of Republican governors and elects a Republican to replace St. Teddy in the U.S. Senate. The same could certainly happen to the Vermont Dems after a few more years of dominance.
2. The right candidate at the right time. The obvious name right now is Phil Scott. It’s considered a virtual certainty that he’ll run for Governor sometime. The big question seems to be, will he do it as a Republican or an Independent? Let’s say he stays in the Republican Party. Could he win? Sure he could. Probably not until 2016 or 2018, and only if he influences the VTGOP back toward the center. But he’s got wide name recognition and a positive reputation.
But aside from Scott, someone else could emerge.
After the jump: a name you might not expect.
What about a person who’s not known as a political figure, who manages to do something noteworthy that creates massive amounts of goodwill and turns him into a central figure in Vermont?
What about Bill Stenger?
Co-owner and operator of the Jay Peak resort. The man who built it into a year-round destination and a rare bright spot in the Northeast Kingdom’s economy. And now, the guy behind a very ambitious $500 million project to revitalize the Kingdom. If he pulls it off, he will have done something that nobody ever has: pull the Kingdom out of its seemingly perpetual doldrums.
Stenger has worked across party lines to make things happen. Most notably, he’s worked closely with Senator Patrick Leahy to bring foreign investment to the Kingdom through the federal EB-5 program.
I have no idea if Stenger has any political ambitions. For all I know, the thought of holding political office gives him the heebie-jeebies. But let’s say it’s the year 2018 or 2020; his Kingdom project is humming along, he’s in his late 60s but still energetic and looking for a new challenge to serve as the capstone to his career.
Why not run for Governor as a candidate with no political baggage and a track record of working with all kinds of folks and getting things done? And run, for the sake of using an existing party structure, as a Republican?
Stenger’s only one example, and again, I have no idea if he’d ever be interested. But you never know where the next big thing will come from, and when it will come.
3. The VTGOP gets smart and goes moderate. The Party was unwilling to do so this year, in spite of Vermont’s political realities. But say a Phil Scott (or a Bill Stenger) comes along who can lead a centrist movement, and who has enough credibility to convince true-blue conservatives to swallow their pride and back him?
Say the party simply gets tired of getting its head beat in, takes stock of its own heritage and Vermont’s political scene, and moves to the center on its own. Even if it meant distancing the VTGOP from the national party. After all, how much help has the state party gotten from hewing to conservative orthodoxy? Vermont is such a small prize in national terms, and the Dems are so dominant right now, why would the national bigwigs bother with Vermont? There are much bigger fish in the ocean.
So if the VTGOP is left to its own devices, why not reinvent itself as a center-right party? Or at least plausibly present itself as such?
4. Unforeseeable events. As I said, forever is a very long time. Who knows how Vermont will change in the next 10, 20, 50, 100 years? For most of the state’s history, the Republican Party was dominant. It was known as “the star that never sets,” the most solidly Republican place in the country. But eventually it came to an end. Now, the Dems are dominant — but they’ve only been that way for less than a decade.
In fact, you could argue that the moment the punditocracy declares a single party to be forever dominant is precisely when that party ought to start running scared. How often, in my lifetime, have I heard predictions that the Republicans — or the Democrats — are about to launch an era of one-party dominance?
And every stinkin’ time, those predictions have proven wrong. Often in a surprisingly short period of time.
So no, I don’t think we’ve seen our last Republican governor. And if the Democrats start believing we have, that’s when the VTGOP will come back.