Moderate and right-wing candidates vie to be new state GOP chair

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Deb Billado in November 2019. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Deb Billado, the polarizing and ardently pro-Trump chair of the Vermont Republican Party, does not plan to run for reelection at the party’s reorganization meeting this Saturday. Paul Dame, a former lawmaker pledging to unite the party, and James Sexton, a hard-right activist, are vying to replace her.

Dame, a former one-term Republican member of the Vermont House of Representatives from Essex Junction, lost his bid for reelection in 2016. He also ran for a Chittenden County Senate seat in 2018 but netted less than 6% of the vote in the deep-blue county. He now runs a small retirement planning company, Shepherd Financial, out of South Burlington and lives in St. George.

Dame said he did not support Trump, but he is positioning himself as a bridge-builder, and several Republican officials — from both wings of the GOP — said he earned their support for his longstanding volunteer work in the party.

“I know what it’s like to appeal to the average Vermont voter,” Dame said in a video announcing his run. “I was able to win support from independents and even Democrats who told me I was literally the only Republican that they would vote for. All this after I had earned 100% rating from the American Conservative Union.”

Sen. Russ Ingalls, R-Essex/Orleans, a Billado fan and staunch conservative from Vermont’s reddest region, said he would like to see Dame win.

“He was very supportive of my run and has been very supportive right through,” Ingalls said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen James Sexton at a GOP event.”

“Based on what I know right now, I would probably favor Paul Dame,” echoed Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock, R-Franklin. “But I probably shouldn’t say that. That will make people who don’t like me mad at him.”

Sexton, a self-described “Christian and traditional conservative,” frequently organizes and attends rallies at the Statehouse for various right-wing causes, including a pro-police event during the summer that drew a large counterprotest. He also ran as a write-in candidate for governor.

“I recently became a member of the Republican Party to be at the forefront of the fight to support and endorse Real Vermont Patriots. Our State has been hijacked by the left/far left agenda. I want to change that,” Sexton wrote in a statement announcing his candidacy on Facebook. Steeped in misinformation about Covid-19 and vehemently against pandemic mitigation measures, Sexton often refers to the vaccine as a “poison” on social media and calls Anthony Fauci a “serial killer.”

“Evil is salivating at the thought of jabbing your children. They will one day burn in Hell,” Sexton recently wrote on Facebook.

During Billado’s tenure, the state party has become increasingly alienated from its more moderate wing and its standard-bearer in Vermont. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican with extraordinarily high support among Democrats, had backed Billado’s challenger when she first ran for chair in 2017. Scott’s pick lost, and Billado ran unopposed in the next cycle. 

She did not respond to a request for comment.

Scott’s spokesperson, Jason Maulucci, said the governor would skip the party’s reorganization this Saturday. But Scott had worked with Dame during his time in the Legislature, Maulucci said, and believed he would make a “good candidate.” 

“It’s no secret that the governor has not always seen eye-to-eye with the state party over the past several years, but he is hopeful that, moving forward, it will concentrate on building coalitions here in Vermont, focused on issues that appeal to all Vermonters,” Maulucci wrote.

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