What do you do if you’re a small frog in a big pond? Well, you can be content with your lot and get along with the bigger frogs; you could move to a smaller pond; or you could drain the big pond until you’re the biggest frog left standing.
The third course is the preferred option of Vermont conservatives. The likes of Mark “Little Snell” Snelling, Brady Toensing, John McClaughry, and Wendy Wilton have seemingly opted out of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s party-broadening operation; they’re backing the longshot write-in campaign of Libertarian Dan Feliciano for the VTGOP gubernatorial nomination. They’re likely to end up with egg on their faces and crow on their plates when the votes are counted; Scott Milne is virtually assured of taking the nomination if only because his name is on the ballot and write-ins are hard.
But their strategery does have a certain logic, an internally consistent reading of history. It’s dead wrong, natch, but there is a narrative. It’s like this: over the last 50 years or so, the Republicans have done best when they lean right, even when it means short-term defeat. (This storyline is the subject of Rick Perlstein’s three-volume history of the rise of the right; the just-published third book, “The Invisible Bridge,” chronicles the years between Richard Nixon’s resignation and Ronald Reagan’s national ascendancy.) Nixon killed the Sixties; Reagan established the rise of the right; George W. Bush took it even further. On the other hand, temporizers like Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney proved to be electoral dead ends.
Which is why so many conservatives truly believe the best course for the Republican Party is to nominate Ted Cruz. And why a small cadre of Vermonters are backing Feliciano.
It’s a coherent, logical view of national political trends. But it doesn’t apply in Vermont and the Northeast. Conservative Republicanism is pretty much dead in New York and New England*; the rare Republican winners are all moderates.
*Maine Governor Paul LePage is a Tea Partier, but an electoral fluke; he won with less than 40% of the vote in a three-way race.
In Vermont, it’s been decades since a true conservative won anything important. Republican winners have all come from the center or center-right: Dick Snelling, Jim Jeffords, Jim Douglas, Bob Stafford. And in the latter days of the Republicans’ Hundred Year Reich, the George Aiken wing led the way.
In short, that long national arc has completely bypassed Vermont – and the Northeast, for that matter. The national conservative ascendancy is based on four factors that have nothing to do with the Northeast: the GOP’s co-optation of southern whites, growing anti-government sentiment in the West and Southwest; Christian conservatism; and the generous support of deep-pocketed One Percenters like the Koch brothers and Foster Friess. None of that applies in Vermont. If anything, the trend in this neck of the woods is to the left. Even in hard-bitten old New Hampshire. To see a growing conservative movement in Vermont is to see dancing cartoon unicorns or pink elephants. There may have been an Invisible Bridge between Nixon and Reagan; but usually when you step onto an invisible bridge, you wind up all wet.