By Alan Keays, VTDigger
Vermont Republicans chose a new party chair this weekend, and it wasn’t the candidate backed by the sitting governor.
Deborah Billado of Essex Junction was elected to a two-year term as the party’s chair over Michael Donohue of Shelburne. Billado takes the place of David Sunderland, who did not seek re-election after four years in the job.
“I’m meeting with many of the party infrastructure in one-on-one meetings and talking about where we’re headed,” Billado said late Monday afternoon.
Billado, former chair of the Chittenden County Republican Party who stepped down from that post to run for the statewide position, had strong support among the grassroots activists of the party. She had been a vocal supporter of Republican President Donald Trump in his campaign for the White House.
Donohue, who moved permanently to Vermont last year and is the current chair of the Chittenden County Republican Party, had the backing of several establishment members of the state’s GOP party. His supporters included members of the Legislature and Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who provided the second on the motion Saturday to elect Donohue the party chair.
Scott, in his campaign for governor, had distanced himself from Trump and has publicly opposed the president on many matters since Trump took office. Donohue said Monday he supported Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich during the primary season and then voted for Trump in the general election.
No vote count for the party chair contest was publically announced at the GOP reorganizational meeting Saturday at the Capitol Plaza Hotel & Conference Center in Montpelier. Seven Days reported that it was a close race, with the margin possibly just one vote.
Donohue said Monday that after the results were in Saturday he a made motion to elect Billado by acclimation, and that led to unanimous support for her from the delegates at the meeting.
Eric Davis, a political analyst and retired Middlebury College political science professor, said Monday he didn’t know how often a sitting governor had endorsed a candidate for party chair and that person lost. “I would think it’s unusual,” he added.
He said that Donohue’s newcomer status created a strong “headwind” for him to overcome in his bid to become the GOP state party chair.
“I think one thing the party likes is someone who spent time in the trenches,” Davis said. “While Donohue has been active in the party since he moved here, normally the people who have been party chairs have been longtime activists, maybe state legislators.”
Rebecca Kelley, the governor’s spokesperson, said Monday she believed there were several factors that contributed to the party chair’s election result .
“I don’t know if you can pinpoint the support of the governor, or the support of each candidate for President Trump,” she said, adding, “I don’t think it’s necessarily a reflection of where the party specifically stands in relation to where (Gov. Scott) stands.”
Billado said she wants to move past any fallout from the governor’s support for her opponent. “I don’t think anything of it,” Billado said. “We are a team and we will be moving forward as such.”
Some GOP members said Billado won because she was a stronger candidate with deeper roots in the state Republican Party. Some wondered why Scott opted to support Donohue.
In an endorsement of Donohue’s candidacy, the governor wrote, “Having a state party Chair that understands the dynamics of the political process, the needs of candidates, and the operations of the national committee is particularly important. I’ve gotten to know Mike and find him to be a very impressive young professional with significant experience serving the party and candidates at the state and national levels.”
Kelley said the governor felt Donohue was the best choice to lead the party based on his experience and leadership approach. She added, however, Gov. Scott respects the vote outcome.
Donohue had previously worked in Washington, D.C. There he served in communications and public affairs positions at such organization as the National Federal of Independent Business and the National Restaurant Association, according to an email he sent to delegates.
Billado, a lifelong Vermonter, is retired from 30 years as a small business owner, and she also worked at IBM for 15 years. She served two years as the chair of the Chittenden County Republican Party and before that was a member of the Essex Town Republican Committee. Billado also served 12 years on the Board of Trustees in Essex Junction.
In an email to delegates prior to Saturday’s party chair election, Billado talked of the importance of building the party from the ground up.
“I am a firm believer that our party’s strength is built upon a foundation of strong town and county party committees and works its way up the line to the top office in Vermont,” she wrote. “Without you and your contributions we will falter in our attempt to change the direction of the State.”
Brady Toensing, who was re-elected the party’s vice chair without opposition, said Monday he supported Billado in the race.
“I think it’s difficult to read anything into it, and it would just be reading tea leaves,” he said of the results of the party’s chair race. “It was just Deb was the stronger candidate.”
State Senate Minority Leader Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, said he backed Donohue in the race, saying he liked the skills that Donohue brought to the table.
Degree dismissed the notion that the race result was a rebuke to Scott.
“I don’t buy it, our governor doesn’t rule with an iron fist,” he said. “I think it’s valuable that the governor made his opinion heard. A lot of governors may have sat back and said they supported the person who won regardless.”
Donohue, who served as deputy press secretary for Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, in his 2000 presidential campaign, said Monday the result of his race for party chair did not sour him at all on the political process.
“It was a very positive experience,” he said, adding, “(Billado) won on this race based on her record of support for the party and her leadership.”