The Bizarre Political Transformation of Vermont

 

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Vermont is known as a staunchly liberal state. It is the state of Bernie Sanders and Ben and Jerry, Democrats hold overwhelming majorities in the Assembly and Senate, and Vermonters voted for Clinton by over 25 points in 2016. Yet, its demographics would normally shout Republican: rural and almost 95% white, making it the whitest state in the union. The state in fact did fit its demographics, at one time being the most Republican state in the union.

Since the Republican Party’s formation in 1854, the state of Vermont did not vote Democrat for the House until 1958, for governor until 1962, and for the Senate until 1974. While the frequent explanation for the change is that the parties switched ideologically, this does not explain the voters electing people in the first half of the 20th century like Senator William Dillingham, a staunch conservative who headed a Senate committee that in 1911 recommended literacy tests for immigrants. Another example was Senator Warren Austin, a New Deal foe who held the seat currently held by Bernie Sanders, who even went as far as being one of six senators to vote against Social Security in 1935. The switch explanation also doesn’t account for the state voting against FDR four times and until 1992 only voting Democrat once for president. The truth is that until the Great Depression the default mode for the politicians and voters of the state was conservatism. President Calvin Coolidge, a native Vermonter, embodied the views and ethic of the people of the state by and large in his limited government approach. By the 1930s, however, these views were starting to come into question with the GOP splitting into conservative and progressive wings. The conservative wing was known as the Proctor faction, with prominent representatives being the Proctor family, which included Governor Mortimer R. Proctor and Sen. Warren Austin. The progressive wing was known as the Aiken-Gibson wing, with its two namesakes, Senator George Aiken and Governor Ernest Gibson Jr. being its representatives. The Aiken-Gibson wing ended up gaining the most prominence in the state and voters were increasingly supportive.

The end of World War II saw change for Vermont, if not in party, then in ideology. While Austin’s successor to office was Ralph Flanders, a moderate conservative, the state of the Republican Party was growing increasingly liberal. In 1946, Ernest Gibson Jr. defeated conservative Governor Mortimer R. Proctor for renomination in the gubernatorial primary, being tantamount to election in that time. His victory overturned a key precedent that was important to maintaining GOP power in the state: The Mountain Rule. Under this rule, which had been in effect since the GOP’s founding, governors, lieutenant governors, and senators were chosen based on alternating between residence on the west side and east side of the Green Mountains. Thus, Vermont would always have one senator from the east side and one from the west side, and governor and lieutenant governor would never be from the same side of the mountain (Bushnell, 2009). However, with the advent of freeways and improved roads, the people of the state began to stop identifying themselves so much as from the west or east side and most importantly, stop thinking that these sides required such a balance of power. He also chose to break the precedent of limiting governors to two years in office, choosing to run for reelection in 1948. His administration was characterized by increasing spending on services, highway construction, and increasing funding of education and social welfare programs, paid for by an increase in the state income tax. This was in contrast to the low tax, low services model of previous administrations. Vermonters approved of Gibson’s work, and reelected him. Frustrated with the more conservative legislature, he accepted an appointment to the U.S. District Court of Vermont in 1950, serving until his death in 1969. Although conservatism was still a force in the state at the time, liberalism was now a politically viable option.

Another departure from conservatism was At-Large Rep. Charles Plumley’s retirement in 1950, being succeeded by Winston Prouty, a GOP centrist, who would join Aiken in the Senate in 1958. The last person who could be considered conservative to be elected to federal office from Vermont was Ralph Flanders, who was reelected in 1952. The conservative wing was starting to lose primaries, and the ultimate indicator of a lack of enthusiasm for the conservative wing among Vermonters was the defeat of former Governor Harold J. Arthur in the 1958 House election to staunchly left-wing Democrat William Meyer, who had been endorsed by three Republican newspapers. Vermont voters, however, weren’t ready for his extreme liberalism and talk of disarmament and admitting Red China into the UN. He easily lost reelection in 1960 to moderate Republican Governor Robert Stafford. Meyer would help form the Liberty Union Party, the springboard for Bernie Sanders’ political career. Although Meyer’s time in office was short, this brief break in Republican control helped reinforce the dominance of the progressive wing of the Republican Party in the state. This would be broken somewhat by the election of Democrat Philip H. Hoff as governor in 1962 and Democrat Pat Leahy’s victory to succeed Aiken in the Senate in 1974, both firsts in state history.

Stafford would move up to the Senate after the death of Prouty in 1971 and serve until 1989, being succeeded by liberal Republican Rep. James Jeffords. In 1990, his successor, Republican Rep. Peter Smith, lost reelection to Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders, who ran as an Independent but identified as a socialist. Jeffords would choose to leave the Republican Party in 2001, finding he could no longer deal with its increasingly rightward drift. His elected successor, Sanders, took office in 2007. Perhaps there was some influence from the immigration of left-wing Bay Staters and New Yorkers like Sanders to push the state even more leftward, but this was a long-term process.

The transformation of Vermont into one of the most Democratic states in the union was about as unthinkable in the 1920s as Wyoming becoming one is today, and it demonstrates that the notion that even the most politically liberal or conservative states must stay that way in the long run is wrong. However, it still possible for Republicans to win gubernatorial races, most recently Phil Scott’s victory in 2016. Republican governors from the Northeast tend to be regarded as economic managers who temper the leftist instincts of Democratic legislatures while simultaneously not being ideologues or culture warriors. He is as of April more popular in his state than Utah’s GOP Governor Gary Herbert (Easley, 2018).

References

Bushnell, M. (4 October 2009). Ernest Gibson: War hero, politician, GOP reformer. Rutland Herald.

Retrieved from http://www.rutlandherald.com/articles/ernest-gibson-war-hero-politician-gop-reformer/

Bushnell, M. (16 October 2016). Then again: An unpolished public speaker brought a long losing streak to an end. VTDigger.

Retrieved from https://vtdigger.org/2016/10/16/unpolished-public-speaker-brought-long-losing-streak-end/

Ernest William Gibson. National Governors Association.

Retrieved from https://www.nga.org/cms/home/governors/past-governors-bios/page_vermont/col2-content/main-content-list/title_gibson_ernest.html

Easley, C. (12 April 2018). America’s Least and Most Popular Governors. Morning Consult.

Retrieved from https://morningconsult.com/2018/04/12/americas-most-and-least-popular-governors/

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