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Editorial: A Bid for Relevancy; Centrists Reclaim Control of Vt. GOP

The dynamics within the Vermont Republican Party that culminated in a battle over its chairmanship were almost certainly more complex than a simple clash between hard-line conservatives and the party’s moderate wing. Competing loyalties, personality conflicts and longstanding grudges usually come into play when squabbles erupt within a political party. But to the extent that the election of David Sunderland represents the triumph of the party’s centrists, it signals good news for Republicans and the state as a whole.

Sunderland, a former House member from Rutland, will succeed Jack Lindley, who decided not to run for re-election because of his health. A political ally of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, Sunderland shares Scott’s belief that the party is better off appealing to moderates and independents than hewing to the right-wing line of the national party, with its emphasis on divisive social issues. He was opposed by John MacGovern of Windsor, a conservative who subscribes to a notion common among true-believers in both parties: Appealing to the center amounts to an abandonment of principle and doesn’t win elections because it alienates the most fervent people within the party. Sunderland won the argument, at least among the party delegates at Saturday’s meeting, capturing 48 of the 70 votes cast.

The debate about whether impassioned purism delivers more election victories than pragmatic inclusiveness is not about to be settled soon. It seems indisputable, however, that moderate Republicans have enjoyed much more statewide success in Vermont — hardly a surprise in a state where social liberalism reigns. The fact that the moderate Scott is the only Republican now holding statewide office surely gives credence to the argument.

If Sunderland’s victory indicates that the moderate wing is now in control and that future statewide GOP candidates will more likely hail from the center, that should be welcome news outside of party circles. Even the most partisan Democrat will concede that some of the state’s most successful elected leaders — Deane Davis, Robert Stafford, Richard Snelling, Jim Jeffords, Jim Douglas — emerged from the moderate wing of the party. The moderates’ re-established ascendancy signals that future such leaders will be valued and nurtured.

A more competitive Republican Party would also benefit the state as a whole. Democrats’ dominance — in their near monopoly of statewide and congressional offices, the lopsided composition of the Legislature and the all-but-nonexistent challenge the Republicans posed to Democratic incumbents in last year’s elections — is not politically healthy. A ruling party that doesn’t have to worry about credible alternatives to its own policy proposals or candidates offering legitimate opposition to its incumbents is almost certain to eventually suffer from arrogance and analytical laziness. A Vermont Republican Party controlled by the right wing would certainly stir the juices of a small band of committed conservatives, but it would hold little chance of restoring the party’s relevancy and injecting an invigorating dose of heterodoxy into the political system.

Moderate Republicans are an endangered species nationally, and New England seems to be one of the few remaining save havens for those members of the GOP who offer a different vision for the party than that which guides the knee-jerk anti-Obama contingent that has done so much damage in Washington. If the reasonable wing of the party has any hope of regaining influence in the national GOP, it must have a secure perch at home from which to operate.