GOP braces for messy showdown
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | November 08,2013
MONTPELIER — A last-ditch effort to mend fences within the Republican Party has failed in recent days, setting the stage for a very public showdown Saturday between warring factions of the Vermont GOP.
This weekend’s Republican “reorganization” — the biennial ritual at which the party elects members of its governing board — features a contest for GOP chairman between former Rutland Town Rep. David Sunderland and failed U.S. Senate hopeful John MacGovern.
The two men represent competing wings of a party at odds with itself. And the results will define, in the short term at least, the path ahead for an organization at a crossroads.
“Certainly it would be difficult to find success in the next election if (MacGovern) were to win,” Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said Thursday. “I think John, from the comments I’ve seen him make, will be a divisive person and alienate more of those who would like to associate themselves with the party again.”
Opponents of Sunderland, meanwhile, characterize him as a Phil Scott apparatchik, hand-picked by a lieutenant governor seeking to use the party to polish his own political statue.
“Phil Scott has picked the people he wants to run, and he basically wants that group to be his cohort,” Snelling said Thursday. “This group of people he’s worked with, he wants them to be beholden to him.”
Since winning reelection last November, Scott has led a charge to unseat Jack Lindley, the incumbent chairman who has drawn fire from party moderates for aligning the Vermont GOP with the Republican National Committee. Perceived connections to Tea Party Republicans, Scott said, have served to repel centrists from associating with their local Republican organizations.
Lindley fell gravely ill last month — he would have run for re-election otherwise — and has since thrown his support behind MacGovern.
Snelling and Scott both say they’ve tried in recent days and weeks to negotiate a power-sharing deal behind the scenes. But talks have failed, and, according to both men, there appears little hope for a resolution before Saturday morning, when town committee members from across the state will convene at 10:15 a.m. at the Montpelier Elks Club for “reorg.”
The scuffle has seen a rotating cast of characters enter and exit the contest for the chairmanship.
“I did not want to see the party continue the fighting that has occurred over last year, instigated by Phil Scott and others,” Snelling said. “So I tried to find somebody I thought might be acceptable to both camps as chair.”
That man was Brady Toensing, a longtime Republican operative who defended former gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie against alleged campaign violations, and who also represented Jerry Dodge in an infamous land deal with his neighbor, Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Snelling said he negotiated directly with Sunderland to reach a deal that would see Toensing replace Lindley, and guarantee Sunderland the vice-chairmanship. Snelling said Sunderland nixed the proposal. Snelling said the reason Sunderland gave for the rejection was that “Phil needs more upside.”
Scott said he spoke with Sunderland about those negotiations, but that the decisions about whether to cement a deal on a unity slate were Sunderland’s alone to make.
Sunderland didn’t return a call seeking comment Thursday. Toensing is running for vice-chairman now, and has the backing of both camps.
The breakdown of talks between Snelling and Sunderland, combined with Lindley’s decision not to run for another term, has led to a bizarre partnership between Lindley, Snelling and MacGovern.
Prior to Lindley’s illness, MacGovern had announced his own candidacy to the party faithful in an email that included a damning indictment of Lindley’s tenure as chairman.
Lindley’s team initially sought to destroy MacGovern, and diffuse any threat he might pose to their team’s incumbency. But when it became finally apparent this week that Lindley wouldn’t be running for reelection, a new alliance was forged, and Lindley urged his supporters to support MacGovern’s candidacy.
MacGovern has been especially critical of Scott, accusing the lieutenant governor in a story in VTDigger.org last week of “dumping principle overboard.”
Both sides say they’re confident they can deliver a win for their candidate Saturday, though they say they’re not looking forward to the public airing of dirty laundry that’s likely to occur.