Two weeks ago, the troubled relationship between the Vermont Republican Party and its most successful politician — Gov. Phil Scott — was, for all intents and purposes, formally terminated. At its biannual reorganization, party delegates re-elected chair Deb Billado to a second two-year term. Billado is an earnest soul, but a staunch conservative and devout Donald Trump fan. And she has had zero success with the admittedly tough task of pulling the party out of the doldrums.
She ran without opposition, which is the real point. Two years ago, Scott came up with a nominee of his own: Michael Donohue (not that guy), a very conservative fellow but a realist with a respectable track record of political organizing in other states. Donohue lost narrowly to Billado, in a result that reflected the party’s Trumpward orientation.
This time, Scott didn’t bother. He didn’t even attend the meeting. (He had a good excuse; Vermont was reeling from a weather disaster, and he was visiting affected areas. But I have a feeling he would have found an excuse to stay away. “Had to walk the dog” or somesuch.)
Delegates elected a slate of far-right Trumpers to top posts. Former attorney general candidate Deb Bucknam is the new vice chair; she replaces Brady Toensing, who resigned last spring to take a position in the Trump Justice Department. (He’s the son of Victoria Toensing, frequent promoter of right-wing conspiracy theories on Fox News along with her husband Joe DiGenova. Brady was a longtime member of the family law firm.)
Other officers include Deb Bucknam’s hubby Charlie as party treasurer and Deb Ricker, re-elected as secretary. Two at-large spots on the executive committee went to onetime state representative Paul Dame, who periodically shows up in my mailbox touting “retirement seminars” with a free dinner at the Steakhouse in Berlin*, and Zachary Hampl (not that guy), a Castleton University student and founder of the local chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty. (Young Zach also endorsed Bruce Lisman over Scott in the 2016 primary battle.)
*If that doesn’t work out for him, maybe he can try hawking timeshares.
None of those worthies is on the same ideological continent as Our Governor. Who, again, didn’t even try to offer alternative candidates more suited to his politics and style.
Meanwhile, (credit VTDigger) party leaders touted a new relationship with the Trump campaign:
A Republican National Committee official said that the “Vermont Trump Victory Team” will be offering candidates in Vermont access to an RNC-backed grass roots training program, messaging and digital resources to “identify and target voters with near surgical precision.”
I’ll believe that when I see it. Digitally targeting voters “with near surgical precision” is best accomplished with boots on the ground. That’s been a real strength of the Vermont Democratic Party: an assiduously curated voter database, built one voter at a time by candidates and volunteers. It’s hard to imagine “near surgical” targeting accomplished from a distance. (More on this below.) Kind of like the military’s endless bluster about “surgical bombing.”
The VTGOP is now entirely a creature of the party’s small but vociferous conservative wing. This is the same crew that completely biffed the 2018 legislative election, failing to recruit candidates in many winnable districts — and failing to offer any tangible support to the candidates it did put forward because of chronically empty pockets.
That situation remains dire, according to the party’s three most recent Federal Election Commission filings. (Reminder: Federal law dictates that the vast majority of party expenditures flow through a federal committee, even for state parties.)
The party managed to hold ground in July, before suffering a fundraising collapse in August and September. At the end of the period, the party reported less than $8,000 in cash on hand.
In July, the party raised $30,000 and spent $31,000. (All figures rounded to the nearest $100.) But in August it raised a mere $3,700 — and September takings were a paltry $1,700. Meanwhile, the party spent $33,000 in those two months, leaving it with a pittance in the bank.
Just as the VTGOP needs to be gearing up for 2020.
The party’s filings show that much of its money is flowing to the D.C. suburbs, the location of five consultancy firms that are getting big checks from the VTGOP. The state party appears to be banking on these firms to do what it has failed to — attract donors and build databases.
Three of the five firms share a common address: 20130 Lakeview Center Plaza, Suite 300, Ashburn, VA. Those three have earned a total of $17,800 from the VTGOP.
HSP Direct ($9,000) is a direct-mail fundraising company that serves conservative clients including the Heritage Foundation, Republican National Committee, the Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks.
NOVA Brokerage and Management Solutions ($6,000) describes itself as a “provider of data solutions.” Which apparently means, helping organizations identify, target and retain supporters.
Sunrise Data Services ($2,800) is also in the data management business, offering services designed to “improve your donor relationships.”
The fourth consultancy is Donorbureau, which does not share office space with the three others — but it does share a leader: Matt Hafer, the “H” in HSP. Donorbureau offers messaging and analytics to improve fundraising response.
The fifth is the Washington Intelligence Bureau ($1,300), which provides secure payment processing. That’s a total of almost $18,000 sent to these D.C.-area firms in a three-month period. Taken together, the expenditures indicate a big bet on these consultants’ ability to do something the state party has been unable to: Create a sustainable flow of funds from willing donors in Vermont and elsewhere.
The initial results have to be a disappointment. The party got a modest influx in out-of-state gifts in July — but virtually nothing in August and September, when virtually all its donations came from a small pool of conservative Vermonters. (And nothing at all from Vermont business leaders, who are always ready to support Scott when he needs them.)
If that $18K went to a big national push, the VTGOP hasn’t gotten its money’s worth. At least so far; things could change. On the other hand, the right-wing consultancy ecosystem is full of predatory opportunists who take hefty slices off the top and produce little in the way of tangible results. The VTGOP wouldn’t be the first small-town hick to be taken to the cleaners by big-city flim-flammers.
So here we are. The state party is desperate for resources. It shows no sign of building an effective organization. It is all but divorced from Scott, the only Republican this decade with the proven ability to win statewide.
The True Believers on the right will make the case that the GOP needs to be purely conservative. They may lose in the short run, like Barry Goldwater in 1964. But over time, they can pull the voters to their side — and elect the likes of Ronald Reagan, Bush II and Trump.
They have a point. But that big national swing was largely fueled by the GOP becoming the party of racial grievance, Christian conservatism and Western anti-governmentism. Vermont’s Republican history is much different. Even when the VTGOP ruled the state for more than a hundred years, the party was often split between conservative and moderate factions. And from the mid-20th Century onward, Republican winners came almost exclusively from the moderate wing. George Aiken, Winston Prouty, Ray Keyser, Deane Davis, Bob Stafford,
Tom Salmon*, Dick Snelling, Peter Smith, Jim Douglas, Jim Jeffords, Phil Scott. It’s a longstanding and consistent pattern. You have to go back to maybe Lee Emerson (1951-55) to find a Republican governor you could truly label as conservative.
*Correction: Gov. Salmon was a Democrat.
So the True Believers are not only on the wrong side of recent history, when Vermont has been a reliably blue state. They’re bucking at least seven decades of political trends. Tell me again how conservative purification will lead to victory in Vermont.