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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

With Single-Payer Vote In 2015, GOP Looks To Win Seats In 2014

VPR-David-Sunderland.jpg
John Dillon
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VPR file
David Sunderland speaks with reporters after his election as head of the Vermont GOP in November 2013.

The stage is set for a historic vote next year on a public financing plan for single-payer health care. And the head of the Vermont Republican Party says that if Vermonters care about what happens in 2015, then they need to think long hard about how they vote in 2014.

When it comes to elections, all eyes are usually on the high-profile races at the top of the ticket. But David Sunderland is devoting much of his attention in 2014 to races in the House and Senate.

“It is really set apart from any other election ... in our state’s history. I mean, this could be the biggest tax increase, the single biggest tax increase that our state has ever seen," Sunderland says. “And the people that are elected in November are the ones that are going to decide it.”

"It is really set apart from any other election... in our state's history. I mean, this could be the biggest tax increase, the single biggest tax increase that our state has ever seen. And the people that are elected in November are the ones that are going to decide it." - Vt. GOP Chairman David Sunderland on 2014 legislative races

Sunderland is only three months into his tenure as chairman of the Vermont GOP. It’s an unpaid position, and one Sunderland balances against the demands of his fulltime job as an engineer at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and being a dad to four children between the ages of 5 and 12.

Sunderland says the races for governor and other statewide offices will be important ones for Republicans in 2014. But he says the battle over single-payer health care next year could be won or lost in the Statehouse. And if the GOP hopes to influence the course of health care reform in Vermont, then Sunderland says the party needs to boost its woefully low numbers in the House and Senate.

“If the numbers got closer, I think that there’s enough middle-of-the-road, common-sense kind of moderate Democrats who may be looking for political cover, to be frank, from a minority with a stronger voice,” he says.

Sunderland is 49, and his gnarled ears betray his wrestling days at Middlebury Union High School, where he also played football. He says the health care issue can be a winning one for the GOP, but only if its candidates can send the right message to voters who are still on the fence about single-payer.

“I think the issue that we need to run on is that, if it’s so great, why is it so secret? And if it’s so great and we know that it’s a better solution than what we got now, why can’t we see what the numbers are? Why is there no financing plan yet?” Sunderland says.

Republicans don’t yet have a candidate for governor, or any of the other four statewide offices held by Democrats. But Sunderland says the Democratic incumbent won’t get a walk.

“The gubernatorial campaign is a winnable one for us for sure, and I think there’s plenty of things to point to for reasons why there’s uneasiness and unrest amongst some of the supporters for Gov. Shumlin in the past,” he says.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, told VTDigger last week that he’d been assured by party leaders that a prominent businessman had pledged to run for governor as a Republican. Asked last week if he knew who would be representing his party at the top of the ticket in 2014, Sunderland was coy.

“I wouldn’t say if I did,” he said with a laugh. “The good news is, there’s plenty of interest.”

Republicans hold 46 seats in the 150-member House and seven seats in the 30-member Senate. Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, says it’s unlikely the GOP can achieve the number of legislative race victories it would need in 2014 to meaningfully sway the balance of power in Montpelier.

“In order for the Republicans to be a serious impediment to the passage of a public financing plan in 2015, they would have to gain a number of seats in both the House and the Senate that’s quite a bit larger than I think is realistically possible,” Davis says.

Davis says if there is an impediment to a single-payer financing package, then it’s more likely to come in the form of “reluctance on the part of Democratic members than it is from opposition from Republican members.”

Republicans Pat McDonald, Joy Karnes Limoge and Dustin Degree have announced they'll run for the Vermont Senate in Washington, Chittenden and Franklin counties, respectively. And according to a story by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz, Republican Bob Frenier will go after the sole Senate seat in Orange County.

Sunderland says he has commitments from many more House and Senate candidates who will be announcing in the coming weeks and months.

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