Changes in the Vermont Republican Party

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) The Democratic presidential debates and primaries spotlight the huge divide between the party's moderates and progressives. Now, we're wondering whether there is a similar divide in Vermont's Republican Party.

Our Calvin Cutler spoke with political scientists about a shift in the Vermont GOP. They say that Vermont Republicans are different than the national party and that they're known for working across the aisle.

But in a state dominated by Democratic lawmakers, experts say Republican candidates seeking office this fall will have to take a page out of Gov. Phil Scott's playbook if they want to succeed.

Vermont's Republican Party is shifting.

"Phil Scott has been able to thread that needle," said Bert Johnson, a Middlebury College political science professor.

Johnson says in Vermont's 2002 election, then-Gov. Jim Douglas did just as well in small towns as he did in larger urban areas. Since then, he says shifting demographics have left Gov. Phil Scott to rely more heavily on rural voters.

"Phil Scott does better in smaller towns, much better than Douglas did and much better than in larger areas. You can see how in the Vermont coalition how the Republican coalition is changing," Johnson said.

At the same time, Vermont GOP Chair Deb Billido leans to the far right.

If Vermont candidates play to President Trump's base, Johnson says it could cost the Republican Party votes this election cycle.

"There's going to be a lot of voters that come out in 2020 who are explicitly going to be at the polls to be against Donald Trump. What you want to be able to do is separate your brand from the Trump brand," Johnson said.

And in a state which is vastly controlled by a Democratic supermajority, GOP candidates for office often feel they are left out of the conversation.

On the campaign trail for lieutenant governor, Meg Hansen and Dana Colson are vying for the GOP nomination. Hansen describes a crisis of confidence within the Republican Party in the last decade and a need for fresh faces.

"In terms of who we are, a lot of people have bought into the far left stereotypes of what Republicans are and so they feel ashamed about it," Hansen said.

Colson acknowledges a divide in the GOP and says Republicans need to band together despite ideological differences.

"It makes no sense to have candidates running in many different directions because if we're not pulling in the same direction, we're not going to accomplish much," Colson said.

But as the Republican Party continues to divide between centrist and conservatives, the party's future in Vermont remains murky.

Experts, however, contend there will always be a need for the GOP as a counterweight to the state's progressives.

"Vermonters want somebody to put a check on the excesses of the Democratic Party and that's where the Republicans are strongest. You need two parties," said Matt Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College.

And just this past week, we saw Republicans in the Legislature provide that key counterbalance. They were able to sustain Governor Scott's veto on a paid family leave bill by just one vote, dealing a blow to Democrats in the Legislature.