A few interesting things came out of the Vermont Republican Convention on Saturday — besides revealing that Phil Scott can’t take a rhetorical punch.
I thought it shone a harsh and unforgiving light on the idea that Vermont Republicans are a breed apart — the last surviving redoubt of moderate Republicanism. That’s largely a fiction created in a desperate effort to appeal to the liberal Vermont electorate. It takes on the veneer of reality thanks to the thoroughly moderate image of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. But the party ranks are full of garden-variety 21st Century Republicanism. Vermont Republicans may have thrown in the towel on social issues like marriage equality and abortion rights*, but they are a stoutly conservative bunch when it comes to brass-tacks issues like government spending, regulation, and taxation.
*Well, let’s say they are withholding the towel. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts they’d change their tune if they ever achieved political power.
After all, this is a party that eagerly embraced John Kasich, a man whose tax plan would make Ronald Reagan blush with embarrassment. George W. Bush, too, for that matter.
But there were signs aplenty at the Convention that this is a party with a strongly conservative core.
Let’s start with the willingness to throw principle out the window and support Donald Trump. Indeed, let’s look at the fact that Phil Scott may just have a Trump problem; there are indications that his declared opposition to Trump is prompting some disaffection among diehard Trump supporters.
And now look at Vermont’s freshly-elected delegation to the national convention. It’s chock full of conservatives, while a bunch of relatively moderate party stalwarts were left without a ticket to Cleveland.
The Convention selected 16 delegates, including:
— Wendy Wilton, prominent member of the party’s right wing, and Lenore Broughton’s favorite candidate in the 2012 campaign. (Wilton lost badly to political newbie Beth Pearce.)
— Darcie Johnston, founder of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, an astroturf group that agitates against health care reform. She was last seen spurning Scott Milne in 2014 and throwing her support behind Libertarian Dan “Four Percent” Feliciano.
— Paul Dame, Libertarian in Republican clothing. Has reportedly copped to never having voted for a Republican for President. One of only four members of the House to earn a 100% rating from the American Conservative Union.
— Jace Laquerre, 17-year-old wunderkind who sequentially supported Rand Paul and Ted Cruz in the primary. Member of Young Americans for Liberty, Students for Life, and the NRA.
— Suzanne Butterfield, former chair of Windsor County GOP and member of the President Coolidge Foundation, “dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of America’s 30th president.” And if Coolidge is your idea of a great president…
— State Rep. Janssen Willhoit, born-again Christian, got an 82% rating from the American Conservative Union.
— Rick Cochran, who described himself as “pro-life and fiscally conservative.”
In addition to the elected delegates, there are three slots set aside for the party chair and Vermont’s two national committee members. That would be:
— David Sunderland, a staunch conservative who has questioned the scientific basis of climate change. (“There’s science on both sides,” eesh.)
— Susie Hudson, last seen accepting a free trip to the Holy Land paid for and guided by the American Family Association, the far-right Christian organization labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
— Jay Shepard, who eagerly anticipated last August’s Vermont visit by Sen. Rand Paul by sending out a Tweet saying “I stand with Rand to defund Planned Parenthood.”
That’s a lotta conservatives, and not much traditional Vermont moderation.
Now let’s look at some of the unsuccessful candidates for delegate, and marvel at the amount of experience the VTGOP is choosing to leave behind.
— Mark Snelling, former VTGOP Treasurer, former candidate for Lite-Gov, and scion of the Dick Snelling family tree.
— Tim Hayward, chief of staff to Jim Douglas, senior staffer under Dick Snelling. During the last days of the Legislature, some “Jim Douglas for President” bumper stickers were being circulated; Hayward had this comment for the Burlington Free Press:
“We always talk about our Republicans as being more moderate perhaps than some of our peers around the country,” said Tim Hayward, former chief of staff for Gov. Douglas.
“There was a spark of truth in those stickers, I think,” Hayward said.
Yeah, he’s not going to Cleveland.
— John Carroll, former state senator and Senate Majority Leader, challenged Bernie Sanders for Congress in 1994.
— Dawn Terrill, Transportation Secretary under Jim Douglas, former finance chair of the VTGOP.
— Brady Toensing, current Vice Chair of the VTGOP.
— Tom Koch, longtime State Representative from Barre, relatively moderate voting record.
— Thom Lauzon, mayor of Barre. Pretty conservative guy, but always willing to work with government — and Gov. Shumlin — if it helps his hometown.
I think that’s sufficient to illustrate my point. The VTGOP’s delegation has a substantial rightward lean, and many of the party’s old lions who go back to the days of moderate Republicanism were left out.
Considering all of the above, who’s got the power in this party, anyway?
This post is already too long, but I’ll point out one other salient fact. Earlier this year, the American Conservative Union issued its annual rankings of lawmakers from around the country. As first reported on Green Mountain Daily, a surprising number of Vermont Republicans got very favorable rankings from the ACU.
The results of the ratings indicated a small pocket of conservatism exists in Vermont: 33 out of 150 Representatives and 5 out of 30 Senators will receive ACU’s conservative award.
That may constitute a “small pocket” of the entire Legislature, but it’s more than half of all Republican lawmakers. That “33 out of 150 Representatives” includes 32 Republicans plus Democrat Cynthia Browning. But the House only has 53 Republican members — so more than half get the ACU seal of approval.
And that “5 out of 30 Senators” could also be described as 5 out of 9 sitting Republican Senators.
In other words, 37 out of 62 Republican lawmakers scored 80 percent or better in the ACU rating. That’s 60 percent, folks. To be honest, that’s quite a bit higher than I expected. And it’s one more sign that the party of Jim Jeffords and George Aiken — hell, the party of Jim Douglas — is vanishing quickly.
Phil Scott may be the VTGOP’s nominee for governor, but his putative moderation is out of step with the state party’s mainstream.