MONTPELIER -- In a year in which the Vermont GOP faces yet another uphill election cycle, prominent Republicans in the party are divided.
The dissension between factions is not over ideology. It is a struggle for control of the message, strategy and competing priorities at a time when the party is underfunded, under resourced and finding it difficult to field candidates in many races.
The filing deadline for candidates is 10 days away, and the Vermont Republicans do not yet have a challenger for Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, nor have they found candidates for statewide offices.
David Sunderland, chair of the Vermont Republican Party, says the party has faced a "recruiting challenge." "It's difficult for people to commit to run in downticket races against better known, well-funded Democratic incumbents," Sunderland said.
In addition, there have been internal disagreements over who should run for governor, whether a gubernatorial primary is in the best interests of the party and whether the party should be investing in bids for House and Senate seats instead of statewide races.
A Republican gubernatorial primary is now looking more definite. Scott Milne, the owner of a successful travel agency, has told the press he is exploring a run, and on Friday Milne said on "The Mark Johnson Show" that he will run if Randy Brock, the former state auditor and state senator who challenged Shumlin in the last election, gets into the race.
Over the weekend, Brock said a primary would not be "a factor that would dictate my decision." Brock has been mulling a second bid for governor for some months now and says he will make an announcement one way or the other very soon.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the only Republican who holds statewide office, wants a primary because he says it would stir public interest in issues Republicans care about - namely the economy, taxes and jobs. Scott says he supports investments in local races this election cycle in order to effect "incremental" change." He'd like to gain a dozen new Republicans in the House and three in the Senate.
Party stalwarts question whether Milne is a serious candidate because he has no name recognition and little political experience. They say a primary could hurt already challenging fundraising efforts by forcing candidates to spend money early, which would leave them depleted in the run-up to the general election and undermine support from the Republican Governors Association, which bankrolled the party during the 2012 election cycle. They also say the party needs a credible candidate in the top slot if it wants to draw voters to the polls.
Sunderland says there is a downside and an upside to a primary. "The downside is it forces candidates to expend campaign money and energy ahead of the general election and could leave them with less to utilize in the general election," Sunderland said. "On the upside, we would have a respectful and civil issue oriented primary if it comes to that. It does get issues out to voters, candidates talk and voters form ideas in the process."
Meanwhile, Shumlin is awash in cash (he has $1 million in the kitty and the support of many in the business community who have traditionally supported Republicans). The Vermont Democratic Party is also well-funded and has a ready-made slate of incumbents for five of the six statewide races and a supermajority of incumbent House and Senate members, most of whom won't have to try too hard to get re-elected.
Jack Lindley, the former chair of the Vermont Republican Party, says he believes a GOP candidate has a shot at the ring this time, if the party can work out its differences and fully back Brock.
"I just get a sense that the people of Vermont are looking for an alternative to Shumlin, and it's not going to be a particularly heavy turnout," Lindley says.
In a year without a presidential or senatorial race, turnout during the general election will be light and Lindley says that means Republicans have a "more than even chance that we've got a fight."
But in order to take advantage of that propitious situation, the GOP has to rally together, Lindley says. Right now, he says, there are "a lot of things hanging in the air." He questions what Scott Milne is up to and what the chair of the Republican party wants.
"Where are all the pieces of the campaign? Nobody seems to know right now," Lindley says. "It's confusing."
"There are too many moving parts, and they have to be sorted out quickly or else Republicans will have someone from Windham County running (for governor), I guess," Lindley said. That someone is Emily Peyton, a candidate in the Republican primary who espouses an amalgam of libertarian views and has not been endorsed by the party.
At the center of the controversy is an underlying frustration with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott who refuses to "step up," according to Lindley and others, and run against Shumlin, or even criticize the governor for what they see as obvious failures, including the failed health care exchange rollout. They say the lieutenant governor may be putting Milne up as a stalking horse candidate to undermine Brock.
"I think a game's being played, and I don't understand these games," Lindley said. "Politics in Vermont has been a pretty good operation, and it's fallen on bad times. We have a supermajority [of Democrats] and an inability to solve the problems of the state. It's pretty sad when GMO labeling is the biggest problem the Legislature has to pass legislation on."
Scott says he isn't willing to change who he is to satisfy members of the party. He isn't ready to run for governor and may never be. In the meantime, he believes it's important to serve on the governor's Cabinet. "That's just my DNA, my makeup," Scott said. "I like to look for solutions, I like to work together to make Vermont a better state."
The internal party strife, he says, isn't as much of struggle as "what it might appear." He sees it as a healthy disagreement over the party's priorities. Scott wants to "change things up" with a bigger Republican presence at the Statehouse.
"My message has been clear about what I think is important for the state," Scott said. "I talk about affordability a lot. I think we need to address that and try to grow the economy. The balance is important. We need to try and offer a different viewpoint and have enough numbers in order to be efficient. I think it's more about priorities than it is about ideology. As Republicans we need to figure out what we do agree on and put it at the top of the list."
Scott who is friends with Milne (they attended school together in Barre), says a primary would benefit Milne, give Brock a chance to reintroduce himself to voters and strengthen press coverage of the Republican debates. (Scott would "stay out of it" and endorse the winner.)
As to whether a primary would alienate donors and the RGA, Scott said, "I may not be in the know as to how all that works. I just think from a party standpoint, from an electability standpoint, that having a little bit of extra time to talk about issues and having coverage from the media would be helpful."
He points to the 2010 Democratic primary, in which five candidates for governor sparred for about six months. "They certainly gained a lot of attention and momentum at the time," Scott said.
This time around, Scott said, Brock will have to try a different way of campaigning that is "conducive to getting enough votes."
"I don't know what that is," Scott said. "I look at things maybe a little differently. If I was in a different arena, and I wasn't successful, I would have to look at why and be honest with myself and try something different. If Randy is running the same campaign he ran before, he may get the same results.
"I'm sure in Randy's mind he's probably gone over it a thousand times what he could do differently," Scott said. "He's looked at that and figured out ways to do it differently he's probably going to take a look at and be ready with when the time comes."