VT-Governor: Hope for Republicans?

It would be easy to think that Vermont Governor Jim Douglas is the last of a dying breed. Douglas, a Republican, announced recently that he ...
by | September 2, 2009

It would be easy to think that Vermont Governor Jim Douglas is the last of a dying breed. Douglas, a Republican, announced recently that he won't seek another term next year.

Douglas' political career began when New England still included a thriving tradition of moderate Republicans. The question now, as Republicans try to hold the Vermont governorship, is whether any remnant of that tradition still exists -- or whether it might be created again.

Even if it has no relevance to the state's politics today, it's interesting to remember just how Republican Vermont once was. The state voted for the Republican presidential nominee every election from 1856 (when a Republican first appeared on the ballot) through 1960.

 In 1912, when Republican nominee William Taft only won eight electoral votes (thanks to Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose candidacy), four of them were in Vermont. No, Vermont never supported Franklin Roosevelt.

From 1854 through 1962, every governor of Vermont was a Republican. Pat Leahy remains the only Democratic U.S. senator the state has ever elected. As Douglas first one statewide office in 1980, Republicans won their 31st presidential election out of 32. They won again in 1984 and 1988.

Today, Vermont is one of the most Democratic states in the country. Democrats have won the last five presidential elections quite easily. The state's congressional delegation consists of two Democrats and an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Both houses of the legislature have lopsided Democratic majorities.

Still, as recently as 2004, Republicans won three separate statewide elections in the state. Douglas was reelected as governor, Brian Dubie was reelected as lieutenant governor (an independently elected office in Vermont) and Randy Brock was elected as state auditor. Brock lost a nail-biting election in 2006, while Dubie won again for lieutenant governor. Dubie won a fourth term last year.

Naturally, Republicans have turned their attention to Dubie and Brock as potential candidates to replace Douglas. It's hard to say how much of a chance they would have to win.

I don't think Vermont's Republican roots from 50 years ago matter much (if at all) today. Still, the successes of Douglas, Dubie and Brock show that voters in Vermont remain interested in lively two-party competition -- especially in state politics, where electing a Republican doesn't affect the national balance of power.

Plus, if anything, Vermont's abrupt reversal from reliable Republican state to reliable Democratic state is a good reminder that states' partisan preferences aren't written in stone. While Republicans may need a new message for the Northeast, I won't be surprised if Vermont is a Republican state again 50 years from now. Of course, that's little solace to Dubie or Brock or any Republican trying to win in Vermont in 2010.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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