Signs of trouble at the VTGOP

This ought to be a pretty good time for Vermont Republicans, comparatively speaking. They won some notable victories in 2014. The 2015 legislative season began with the Governor abandoning his signature issue, and the legislature facing a big budget deficit and a bunch of tough issues.

The Democratic majority did a pretty good job all told, but they certainly left plenty of room for Republican attacks. The tax increases, the education reform plan, the unresolved problems with Vermont Health Connect, the apparent disconnect between Governor and legislature. Lots of red meat.

Suggested truth-in-advertising logo for the VTGOP.

Suggested truth-in-advertising logo for the VTGOP.

But there are signs that the Vermont Republican Party is still in the doldrums: low on funds, poor on party-building and grassroots organizing, surprisingly passive during a season of opportunity, and suffering from a seemingly intractable rift between the True Believers and the Inclusivists.

Some of this is nothing but rumor. But rumor with a consistent, believable storyline that’s reflected in the cold, hard facts of the VTGOP’s financial reports.

Rumors? I’ve heard that the Republican legislative leadership is unhappy with the lack of support they got from the Party during this year’s session. That sentiment has been expressed by True Believer activist Darcie Johnston, last seen abandoning the VTGOP to spearhead Libertarian Dan “4%” Feliciano’s failed campaign for governor. She Tweeted this in response to a Vermont Democratic Party message thanking lawmakers “who worked so hard this session”:

I’ve also heard that Johnston recently organized a “grass-roots” party meeting to which the party leadership was not invited. And I’ve heard rumblings that the performance of the VTGOP’s one and only paid staffer, Executive Director Jeff Bartley, has been underwhelming.

Enough rumors, let’s have some facts. Longtime party treasurer Mark Snelling resigned last December without fanfare. Since then, the VTGOP has had three different treasurers, one after the other. (Changes in party officers have to be reported to the Federal Elections Commission.) That can’t be a good thing.

More facts? I’ve been perusing the VTGOP’s monthly federal financial reports. Current election law classifies most state party activities as “federal,” even if they’re really state-focused. So f you want to look at a party’s finances, the FEC filings are where the real information is.

The party — technically, the Vermont Republican Federal Elections Committee — began 2015 with roughly $48,000 in the bank. It would have had a negative balance if the Republican National Committee hadn’t injected $51,600 into the VTGOP during 2014. That’s pretty sad, coming out of an election cycle that saw Democratic floundering and Republican gains.

Since then, the balance has gone in the wrong direction, ending April at $24,347. (The May report hasn’t been filed yet.) During that time, the VTGOP raised less than $10,000/month, and spent more than $17,000/month. The VTGOP certainly hasn’t built any money momentum out of November’s victories and this year’s contentious legislative session.

The spending included some interesting, some would say curious, items. In February, the party paid $10,000 to America Rising for “research consulting.” America Rising is a Virginia-based PAC whose specialty is opposition research, i.e. digging up dirt on one’s opponents.

Seems an odd thing to be doing in an off year. Of course, it could be a leftover unpaid bill from the 2014 campaign. If so, I’d say America Rising failed to deliver the goods, since I don’t recall any ground-shaking revelations about any Democrats. (I’d also say the VTGOP takes its sweet time paying its bills.)

Bartley is making $50,000/year as Executive Director. (At least his checks are coming on a regular basis. That was not true with Mike Bertrand, the last VTGOP Executive Director, who quit in early 2012 because he wasn’t getting paid regularly.) That’s a reasonable sum if he’s using his time productively. Which seems to be an arguable point.

The party spent about $4,000 to send Bartley and Republican National Committeewoman Susie Hudson to a three-day RNC conference at the Hotel Del Coronado, a luxury beachfront resort in San Diego. Hudson stayed at the Coronado at a cost of over $400/night, while Bartley roughed it at an off-site hotel that “only” charged about $280/night. Awww.

Ms. Hudson was last seen taking a trip to the Holy Land on the American Family Association’s dime; she saw no problem with the free trip, in spite of the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center has classed the AFA as a “hate group.” This year, she not only enjoyed a VTGOP-paid trip to the RNC soiree, she’s also been drawing hefty paychecks for “fundraising consulting.”

How hefty? $3,000 in December 2014, and $1,250 each in February, March and April of this year. If she’s earning her pay, it sure doesn’t show up in the VTGOP’s paltry receipts.

In April, the party paid $3,515 to a Minnesota firm for telemarketing. A curious move during an off year: what’s the point of a costly phone bank when the next election is 17 months away?

Put it all together, you get a Vermont Republican Party that’s (1) failing to bring in enough money to sustain its bare-bones operation; (2) making some questionable purchases with its scarce resources; and (3) showing no visible signs of building a more viable Party heading into 2016.

If true, it’s a tragic failure to capitalize on the opportunities laid before them by an unpopular Democratic governor, and a Democratic legislature that’s had to take a bunch of potentially unpopular actions. The lack of fundraising certainly speaks to a VTGOP that’s failing to turn its opportunities into resources.

During the closing weeks of 2014, a national Republican PAC dumped more than $300,000 into selected campaigns for the legislature, which may have helped swing some close races the Republicans’ way. Unless the VTGOP gets its act together and soon, it’ll be dependent on the generosity of outside groups to mount a vigorous campaign in 2016.

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