This commentary is by Paul Dame, chair of the Vermont GOP.
It’s been a difficult week for Republicans. Expectations were high for many across the country, and they didn’t materialize. I thought that even if we under performed in Vermont, there would be enough success elsewhere. But as it stands even the control of Congress is up in the air, something that even the most liberal news outlets were basically conceding.
So what happened? Well, I will admit that I have a lot more questions than answers. There are certainly a number of things that might be factors.
Prior to the election, voters seemed to be telling us that rising prices were their biggest concern, along with public safety as a second. This is something we saw with polling data, which was also confirmed anecdotally by our candidates knocking on doors. But the results of the election seem to indicate that either voters changed their mind, or voted differently than how they indicated they would. I think that two of the biggest factors working against Republicans were the issue of abortion (even for many of our pro-choice candidates) and the shadow of Donald Trump. Trump was not on the ballot for Republicans, but in many ways he was on the ballot for Democrats.
But there are a number of other factors that deserve closer examination than can be afforded in this article.
Some of those things are out of our control. What was in control that we can change? The first most obvious answer is recruitment. We only ran 88 candidates for House this year, and many of them were late-edition write-ins from the primary. As Wayne Gretsky once said “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,” and there were a lot of shots we didn’t take. Some of those included places where we should have done better. We had two seats up in the Northeast Kingdom where a current Republican seat was vacated and we didn’t find a replacement candidate. Reapportionment did complicate this for us being in the minority party, because we had a few Republican incumbents get pitted against other incumbents, which left other districts blank, and we basically had 60 days to recruit after the map was finalized.
When we recruit fewer candidates, it leaves more openings for lower quality candidates to get on the ballot either through the signature process, or by getting 25 write-ins. And current Vermont law does not give the party the ability to control who ends up on our ballot — as we saw in the primary. It’s obvious that one terrible candidate can spoil the races for an entire county, and sometimes beyond.
Perhaps we are a victim of our own success in 2020. If we could pick up seats in an election year with Trump on the ballot, I thought this should be a better opportunity for us. But the Republican caucus, along with a handful of independents and Democrats, was able to stop some of the worst legislation being proposed by the supermajority. So in the end voters felt like they were safe voting Democrat, because nothing too extreme happened. With the end of excess COVID money coming soon, and an expanding list of state programs, Democrats are going to be in a position where they will have to govern by raising taxes or cutting programs that will alienate their most extreme progressive base.
But if Republicans want to get out of our superminority status, we can’t be content to sit back and watch Montpelier collapse. We have to be in the process of proposing attractive alternatives to the tax-and-regulate reflex that Democrats will be implementing this next biennium. And we can’t constrain ourselves just to being the party that are better accountants. It seems like voters — including many Republican voters — want something far more inspirational than a balanced checkbook if they are going to turnout and vote for our candidates. We’ve got two years to rebuild the party on a fundamental level, or else the worst is yet to come.