Is the VTGOP About to Break Apart?

He’s definitely up to something.

The Vermont Republican Party is a dysfunctional mess. For pretty much as long as I’ve been writing about #vtpoli — 10th anniversary coming up this year — the party has struggled in fundraising, organizing, candidate recruitment, and choosing an ideological lane. There’s been tension between its elected officials, who recognize that they have to appeal to the center in order to win, and the party faithful, who are profoundly conservative.

During the Trump years, that split has gotten wider. Gov. Phil Scott has essentially divorced himself from the party since November 2017, when he backed Mike “Not The Reporter” Donohue for party chair, only to see incumbent Deb Billado narrowly re-elected by the state committee. (Donohue is pretty conservative but he’s a realist, not a fanatic.) The party hierarchy is now full of Trump true believers, including Billado, vice chair Deb Bucknam (last seen filing a nutty lawsuit over Gov. Scott’s Covid-19 policies), and the two national committee members, Jay Shepard and Suzanne Butterfield.

Well, now the VTGOP’s split is going public. Rep. Scott Beck of St. Johnsbury is calling for the resignation of party officials who refuse to advocate for Trump’s removal from office, and he’s gathering support among Republican electeds.

“I have had some pointed comments at VTGOP leadership, and I have said to them, ‘If you cannot cross these bridges, I think it’s time for you to move on,’” Beck told Seven Days on Tuesday.

Sen. Corey Parent and Rep. Anne Donahue have joined the call for Billado to resign, after she issued a mealy-mouthed condemnation of the January 6 Capitol riot that didn’t mention Trump at all.

Beck et al. are clearly right about this; the current VTGOP is doomed to permanent minority status. But if they’re serious, it’s going to be a long, hard struggle. Things would get a lot worse before they start getting better, and “getting better” is not a sure bet. Because if they succeed in dislodging the hard-core Trumpers, there will hardly be anything left.

Billado has been party chair for three-plus years. She publicly espouses the “big tent” theory, that the party should welcome all views. But during her tenure, the party has gone through a winnowing process. It’s not a direct purge or anything, just a sorting-out of Republicans who can’t stand being in a room full of nutcakes. The result: All you’ve got left are the nutcakes.

Example: I attended a state committee meeting in 2019 at which Billado peddled a conspiracy theory about United Nations Article 21. The “substance” of the theory is that the UN wants to empty out rural areas and force everyone to live in densely-packed communities where forced egalitarianism is the rule. I wrote about it at the time.

“I’ve seen tens of thousands of apartments being built in Chittenden County,” Billado said from the podium. This dystopian array of human Habitrails is, in her telling, part of “a master plan” to depopulate the countryside. …If anyone in the room thought that was crazy, they didn’t speak up.

Because most of the people in that room — the state committee and the party officials — probably shared her belief. And why, if you’re a self-respecting thoughtful Republican, would you want to spend time with those people?

So. Remaking the party is a Herculean task with no sure path to success. The key is Gov. Phil Scott. He’d have to do a bunch of things he doesn’t like to do: Get into the muck, do the hard work of recruiting and rebuilding, make some enemies, and fundraise the hell out of this. (Right now, the Repubilcan National Committee is a major underwriter of the VTGOP’s precarious finances. The RNC remains steadfastly committed to Trump. A moderate, George Aiken-style VTGOP would risk losing that support.)

And Scott doesn’t even like fundraising for himself, as you can see from his last two campaigns’ meager bankrolls. But here’s the pitch I’d make to him.

If he wants the party to be competitive after he leaves the stage, which he will someday, he has to act now — while he’s at the peak of his political influence. Or, if he’s busy being governor and all, he has to send in his team to clean house. Jason Gibbs, Brittney Wilson, Dustin Degree, Dick Wobby. The people who can plausibly act with the governor’s imprimatur.

If they can remake the VTGOP as a fiscally conservative organization without all the QAnon crap and the culture wars, they should be able to tap into the reservoir of political money that, right now, doesn’t really have a home. Vermont’s donor class is either investing their money outside the state or supporting Democrats as a way to maintain influence. A Phil Scott-style party should be able to bring those donors back home.

But in the process, Team Scott would risk losing the hard-core Republican base. People like, for instance, state committee member Robby Mazza, who posted this on social media in response to Beck’s comments:

Hey, remember Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment? “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican? I don’t think Robby’s on board with that.

That’s the kind of attitude Team Scott would have to root out, from top to bottom. Can it be done? I don’t know.

Does it have to be done if the VTGOP is to become a viable political force? Yes, indeed.

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