The Vermont GOP is gearing up for a ground war with Democrats in House and Senate races across the state.
The Republicans have recruited 36 new candidates to run for House seats (with at least 74 running altogether) and they believe they have a shot at regaining enough seats to tip the balance of power in the Statehouse.
The state party has been aggressively recruiting high-profile candidates that party officials say have a good shot at winning seats in conservative strongholds -- Rutland, Bennington and Orleans counties -- and in areas that Democrats have typically dominated, including central Vermont and Chittenden County.
The Democrats have held two-thirds of the 150 seats in the Vermont House since 2009. The GOP has had between 45 and 48 representatives during that period, and Progressives, typically hold a handful of seats, and this year an equal number of independents will try their luck.
The GOP holds seven seats in the 30-member Senate, and they hope to gain at least three more. Republicans are targeting Sens. Don Collins, D-Franklin; Ann Cummings, D-Washington; Eldred French, D-Rutland, and John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans.
With the Dems smarting over public antipathy to higher property tax rates and frustration over the repeated failures of the Vermont Health Connect system, the Republicans believe they have key wedge issues they can leverage in the 2014 election. The GOP has candidates vying for the seats of several chairs of committees, including Rep. Martha Heath of Westford, head of House Appropriations, and Rep. Mike Fisher of Lincoln, head of House Health Care.
Dave Sunderland, chair of the Vermont GOP, says the goal is to "bring some balance back to the Legislature and state government.
"That's the focus for all of our work that we can restore some balance in Montpelier, and bring a stronger voice for people who feel left out of the process over the last four years," Sunderland said.
Sunderland says he is pleased with the number and quality of the candidates who have stepped up this year, and he expects more to come forward before the June 12 deadline for candidate petitions.
Democrats say they're not worried about the troubled rollout of Vermont Health Connect, the lack of progress on property tax reform or polls showing flagging popularity for Gov. Peter Shumlin.
"We are proud of our successes (in the legislative session)," said Julia Barnes, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. "And we will take that into our conversations with voters."
Barnes cited victories for Vermont families on increasing the minimum wage, a landmark GMO labeling bill, attention to opiate addiction and the creation of universal public preschool opportunities
"We're going to go after as many (seats) as we can," Barnes said. "We plan to organize in every Vermont district and provide support for all of our House and Senate candidates. Our goal is to win."