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Editorial: Building a Better GOP in Vermont

Vermont Republicans show signs of being an endangered species in a state that is increasingly a Democratic stronghold. The GOP holds only one statewide office and has been reduced to the status of a superminority in both chambers of the Legislature.

It was not always thus. Republicans held the governor’s office from 1855 to 1963, and Vermont voted for Republican presidential candidates in 27 consecutive elections from 1856 to 1960. More recently, the popular and pragmatic Jim Douglas served four terms as governor beginning in 2003. Some think his very popularity masked declining vigor in the party organization, The New York Times recently reported.

In any case, a major rebuilding job is ahead, and everyone interested in the long-term health of the state should root for its success. One-party rule is a dangerous thing, because it can so easily become intellectually lazy and operationally complacent. The democratic faith presupposes that elections will be closely contested, so that ideas and policies are exposed to the fruitful scrutiny of voters.

For the moment, Republican Chairman David Sunderland appears to be concentrating on legislative races. He told the party’s State Committee over the weekend that the Republicans will contest about 10 percent more House seats than they did two years ago and will run “spirited campaigns” for half the seats in the state Senate. This makes eminent good sense. As with rebuilding a major league baseball team, the first step is developing talented newcomers in the farm system who can eventually compete effectively on a bigger stage.

This fall, though, Republicans will compete statewide only for the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices. Incumbent Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is seeking re-election, and Pomfret businessman Scott Milne is the front-runner to face Peter Shumlin, the two-term Democratic governor, in the fall. No GOP candidates came forward to run for secretary of state, auditor of accounts, attorney general or treasurer.

Milne acknowledges that his bid is a long-shot proposition, and it certainly is. But win or lose, he has the opportunity to raise some important issues — and red flags — in the course of the campaign. One is the administration’s failure to meet its statutory deadlines to disclose how it will finance the $2 billion single-payer health insurance system that it is committed to implementing. Skeptics suspect Shumlin is merely delaying the controversial news until after the election. In any case, it is impossible to evaluate the wisdom of moving to a single-payer system without knowing how it will be paid for.

In the same vein, the technically troubled roll-out of the state’s new health care exchange last fall casts doubt on whether the state is up to the challenge of what promises to be an infinitely more complex task of inventing a unified single-payer system.

Also in play is school consolidation. Although the Legislature did not pass legislation this year to shrink the number of school districts in the state, it almost certainly will be a centerpiece of the legislative agenda next year. There is an argument worth having about whether school consolidation will ultimately save much money or increase student opportunity, and if so, at what cost to communities.

These are not merely bumps in the road to be flattened by the Democratic steamroller. They are serious questions and deserve a full airing this fall, along with a number of others.

Sunderland seems determined to reinvent the Vermont Republican Party along the lines of its moderate and pragmatic roots. Those attributes served the GOP well for many decades, and could do so again. And all Vermonters would reap the benefits.