What if Phil Scott loses?

In my second-most-recent post, I listed all the bad news visited upon Vermont Republicans over the past few days. I ended by asking “What if Phil Scott loses?”

I’ll get to that question, but in the meantime, WCAX released its own poll showing Scott with a seven-point lead over Sue Minter, which has triggered much rejoicing Chez Phil.

In his lede, WCAX’s usually reliable Kyle Midura made an unwarranted inference: since the VPR Poll had shown a statistical dead heat, the TV poll shows that Scott is “pulling ahead.”

Which, c’mon now. These are two polls from different organizations with possibly differing methodologies. (We don’t know because WCAX hasn’t released any details. VPR has disclosed all of that.) Drawing that direct a line between the two polls is misleading at best.

What we have are two data points. One (VPR) from an in-state academic polling outfit, one (WCAX) from a New Jersey-based for-profit firm.

Pollster Paul Braun engaged in some speculation that ought to unnerve those placing a lot of weight on his survey. He credited the WCAX gubernatorial debate for driving Scott’s alleged momentum — when, in fact, debate audiences tend to be very small, and the impact of debates on public opinion is also small. (Unless you pull a Trump, of course.) There is no evidence to support Braun’s assertion.

He also noted that at this stage in the race, “people can change their minds quickly.” But the poll was taken before Sue Minter’s series of boisterous campaign rallies with Bernie Sanders and a unified Democratic ticket. So maybe minds have changed since Braun conducted his poll?

We don’t know. .We just have two data points, and no way of knowing how to interpret them.

Since we’re all speculating here, I’ll go ahead with my own: What if Phil Scott loses?

He’s been the Great White Hope of Vermont Republicanism since 2010. He is the only current Republican with proven statewide appeal, and an image that could draw enough moderate and liberal voters to overcome the Democrats’ numerical advantage.

With Governor Shumlin exiting office a diminished figure, it was assumed that the Democrats would have a hard time holding the corner office, and Scott would be a formidable opponent.

Now, for the first time in the campaign (WCAX notwithstanding), a Scott defeat seems plausible.

On November 9, the VTGOP would wake up to an uncertain future, their Crown Prince cast off into exile. It might be the death knell for whatever remains of moderate Vermont Republicanism, which Scott has championed as the only way to victory.

A post-Scott VTGOP wouid be led by the very conservative David Sunderland. The most powerful officeholder, and the closest thing to a Republican kingmaker, would be House Minority Leader Don Turner. He has been the public face of Republican opposition to the Democratic agenda, and this year he has (apparently) crafted a way to get significant money into the hands of GOP House candidates, by way of The Big Four. His own political action committee has benefited greatly from The Big Four’s generosity.

In a VTGOP stripped of its popular moderate leader, the conservatives would occupy the vacuum. The legislative caucus is already more conservative than its image; according to Rep. Bob Helm, self-defined Vermont chair of the ultraconservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), roughly one-third of all Republican lawmakers are members of ALEC.

And whatever money is available to finance legislative campaigns is coming from sources who share ALEC’s agenda: Skip Vallee, Lenore Broughton, Tom and Carol Breuer. So any new Republican lawmakers will be aligned with, or beholden to, conservative interests.

Nothing wrong with that; just don’t be expecting the Party of Jeffords to be making a comeback anytime soon.

So, for better or worse, expect conservative Republicans to take a firm grasp on the party apparatus — such as it is. The party has been starved of resources and needs a complete rebuild. Cutting into the Dems’ legislative dominance is a tough task that will take years at best. At worst, the VTGOP’s structural disadvantages may doom it to permanent rump status.

Now, assuming their Crown Prince drifts into exile, where do Vermont Republicans turn for their 2018 candidate?

I can think of two names, and only two.

First, Bruce Lisman. If he were inclined to take another run at it, he could clear the field with the mere threat of opening his checkbook. He’s got more statewide name recognition now. And he might see 2018 as a better opportunity because it’ll be a non-presidential year and Governor Minter could be vulnerable.

Second, the guy who’s been my nightmare candidate for several years now: Neale Lunderville. Stalwart of the Jim Douglas administration. Number-one fixer for Democrats with a management issue to solve (Tropical Storm Irene, Burlington Electric). Solid bona fides with the business community.

If all these dominoes fall in the right direction and Lunderville challenges Sue Minter, then the Democrats will have a real fight on their hands. Lunderville is capable, smart, and articulate. He has conservative credibility from his years as Jim Douglas’ enforcer; he has moderate credibility thanks to people like Peter Shumlin and Miro Weinberger who’ve made a habit of turning to him as a fixer. He could dog-whistle the right while publicly tacking to the center, just like Jim Douglas.

Lunderville could run a lengthy series of TV ads and flyers with photos of him working alongside every major Democratic leader of the last several years. He’d be awfully difficult to attack because he’s been a nonpartisan figure since Jim Douglas folded his tent. He could present himself as a technocrat who knows how to solve problems.

Thanks to the Democrats.

Short term, if Phil Scott loses the Republicans are screwed and in disarray. The bounceback period, however, should not be overestimated. At least at the top. In the Legislature, the Republicans will have a very hard time getting even a sniff of a majority. But they could certainly compete for the top job with the right candidate. And they’ve got one in waiting.


7 thoughts on “What if Phil Scott loses?

  1. Mark Trigo

    Phil Scott, if he loses, will lose by a much smaller margin than Deb Bucknam. So it will be hard to say that the conservative wing of the Republican Party is more electable. To be fair, Bucknam was never seen as a threat whereas Scott was supposed to win.

    I’m not convinced that Lunderville will run. He’s made a lot of money since the Douglas days by not pissing off Democrats. Why would he bite the hand that is feeding him just to enter an election as an underdog?

    If Scott doesn’t win, the smart Republicans will realize that a moderate was much closer to getting elected than an ultra-conservative. Frankly, it’s the conservative wing of the Republican party that has given Minter a good chance. The public is justifiably skeptical of Vermont Republican Party as a whole, even if Scott is a moderate.

    I’ll take one stab at who may run two years from now if Scott loses: Wendy Wilton. This is especially likely if a Syrian refugee commits a rape or if there are other similar problems with the refugee program. It’s also likely if Minter raises taxes.

    A real wild card is Joe Benning – although I think if he was interested in being Governor he would have run for Lt. Governor this cycle.

    If the Republicans want to remain relevant, they need to move to the center. But in the foreseeable future I don’t expect that to happen.


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