If You’ve Stuck Your Head Up Your Fundament, Keep On Pushing Until You See Daylight

This past weekend, former Vermont Republican Party Executive Director and Ashley’s husband Jeff Bartley posted a lengthy thread on Twitter about what’s wrong with the party and how to try to fix it. The thread was thoughtful and substantive. And there’s not a chance in hell that the VTGOP will pay him any heed. Instead, the party is doubling down on the strategery that landed it in the political wilderness.

I can tell because at its most recent meeting, the party’s state committee doubled down on election denialism. It appointed a special subcommittee to investigate Vermont’s “election operations, procedures and integrity.”

(This from the Vermont Daily Chronicle because no mainstream media outlet bothers to cover state party meetings anymore.)

That’s right, having failed to get anywhere with its much-touted (and still extant) Excess Ballot Reporting Form, the VTGOP is broadening its search to include every potential source of funny business in the desperate hope of finding any. Because the alternative is to actually admit that it’s losing elections because its policies are deeply unpopular.

The subcommittee’s members will be appointed by the party’s county committees. Considering the kind of people running most of the county parties, one can only imagine the caliber of investigatory specialists likely to fill out the subcommittee. I’m thinking Inspector Clouseau, Barney Fife, Ace Ventura, Scooby-Doo, and the Nigel Bruce version of Dr. Watson.

The subcommittee is expected to “render an interim report in accordance with this Resolution not later than December 31, 2023, and a final report not later than December, 2024,” which is damn curious timing. It’ll take more than a year and a half to finish its work, but it’ll have to wrap things up right after the next statewide election? What exactly are they going to investigate? Town Meeting Day?

Bartley’s prescription, by contrast, requires a lot of hard work and abandonment of cherished conservative myths. He notes the party’s poor fundraising performance, which has meant complete reliance on volunteers and a lack of coordinated effort. In that situation, the party chair is too overwhelmed to carry on effectively.

I must acknowledge here that when Bartley was in office, I was often critical of him. But in retrospect, his time at the VTGOP seems like The Good Old Days. Unlike the current crop of leaders, he understands that the party can’t afford ideological purity if it’s going to be competitive.

Anyway. Bartley notes that several years ago, the party committee rejected a rules change that would have expanded the committee to include each elected lawmaker. That’s not perfect — I mean, have you seen some of the Republicans in the Legislature? — but it would have injected a measure of political realism into party governance. Most Republican lawmakers, even the very conservative ones, realize that the party has to tack in a Phil Scott direction in order to be competitive.

The lack of staff has also left the party with no active candidate recruitment effort. The result: Fewer electable conservatives like, well, Ashley Bartley, and a lot more highly-motivated but doomed ideologues. Recall that I profiled 24 far-right legislative candidates last fall, and 23 of them lost. The only winner, Jarrod Sammis, just left the VTGOP and declared himself a Libertarian. If the Republicans had only managed to field reasonable candidates in winnable districts, Scott wouldn’t be looking down the barrel of historic veto-proof majorities right now.

Overall, the Bartley plan is solid — but unrealistic because the party committee is loaded with ideologues who do things like pursue election denialism instead of rebuilding the party. The only guy with enough pull to do something about this is the governor, but he long ago washed his hands of the VTGOP. Without him, there’s no focal point for a party reclamation project.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the governor put a reasonable amount of effort into party-building. His team could fundraise, not for the party, but for organizational efforts outside the VTGOP structure. I have to think that potential donors in the business community who’ve stopped giving to the state party would be positively inclined toward a Phil Scott Leadership SuperPAC or a candidate development/recruitment organization along the lines of Emerge Vermont, which has funneled dozens of women onto Democratic tickets and into office. A conservative counterpart wouldn’t necessarily be focused on women, which might be a luxury in such desperate times, but it would encourage and equip Republican candidates who get no love from the party.

This wouldn’t have to be a big project to begin with. It could be targeted in a few critical areas where the VTGOP ought to be winning seats: Franklin, Rutland, the Kingdom, some Burlington suburbs. Shore up the base. Win back enough seats to block legislative vetoes. Then the effort can be expanded to other precincts.

It can be done, but Magic 8-Ball says “Don’t count on it.” I doubt Phil Scott is more into long-term planning halfway through his fourth term than he was in, say, 2017. During his tenure, the ideologues have cemented control of the party hierarchy. His model of Republican electability has been rejected by his own party.

And its solution is to appoint a special panel to go hunting for election fraud. Sheesh.

As a liberal and a chaos-lovin’ Political Observer, I have a rooting interest in Republican incompetence. But the Vermont electorate and the cause of good governance would be better served if the VTGOP was at least strong enough to hold its own. Unfortunately, the people who could make a difference, like Phil Scott and Jeff Bartley, have been shoved to the sidelines by the very people who can’t win an election to save their lives.


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