With the 2018 primaries in the final stretch, GOP leaders say they have their eye on how Republican Gov. Phil Scott is going to perform after having sided with the left on gun control and other issues during his first term.
“The race to watch tomorrow is the governor’s race,” said Brady Toensing, vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party.
“He will likely prevail, but his numbers will look awful. As an incumbent, he should be winning with 95 percent, but he won’t come close to that.”
According to Toensing, the governor’s willingness to embrace liberal agendas on key issues has angered core supporters.
“His base is upset over his abandonment of firearms rights, his legalization of recreational marijuana, and his vocal opposition to the President,” he said. “To measure the discontent, you will need to count the total votes for Keith Stern, John Rogers, and the blank ballots for governor.”
Toensing added that while campaign staffers “are bragging” that polling shows Scott “will be okay in the general election,” it isn’t likely to help in Tuesday’s primary.
“A primary is different and the governor is lucky that he does not have a real candidate with which to contend,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said he is watching the governor’s race and a handful of other important contests, and thinks Scott will get a second term as governor this year.
“I don’t have any question that Scott is going to get re-elected,” Benning said. “I thoroughly disagreed with Phil on the gun question and I told him that in no uncertain terms. But by far and large, there’s every indication that Vermont’s economy is picking up, and he’s managed to hold the line at least on residential property taxes.”
He said if there’s going to be a battle of any kind, it will be in November, when his party has to go head-to-head with one of the five Democrats in the primary race for governor.
While four of those Democrats are registered to appear on the ballot, polling shows none has significant name recognition in the state. One gubernatorial candidate whose name does not appear on the ballot, State Sen. John Rodgers, a Democrat representing the Essex-Orleans district, has strong backing from Vermont’s Second Amendment coalition.
“I suspect strongly that a write-in candidate, even though he may have a motivated core group of followers, is gonna have an uphill battle with most voters who are going to the polls, unless there is an extremely low turnout, in which case he might have a distinct advantage,” Benning said.
The veteran senator said he is “very impressed with Alex Farrell and how he’s running his campaign,” adding that he “would love to be able to see the [heavily Democratic] Chittenden County voting block get a chink in its armor.”
He also said he hopes Rutland County voters will re-elect incumbent Sens. Brian Collamore and David Soucy.
“Brian has been my wing-man … in the leadership position and has done a really good job at keeping us all together and keeping us on top of legislation that is going through,” he said. “Dave Soucy is bright, he’s articulate, and he’s become very well-liked. I would very much like to see him return to the seat.”
On social media, both parties’ leadership are taking positions for and against Scott. The governor’s official campaign Twitter account highlighted endorsements from popular Republican leaders.
— Phil Scott (@PhilScott4VT) August 6, 2018
On the Democratic side, the Vermont Democrats retweeted a commentary by Arshad Hasan, head of the Alliance for a Better Vermont, which said Scott’s popularity is sliding for many reasons.
"Governing requires leadership and foresight on all kinds of issues that affect our wallets and our lives.
— Vermont Democrats (@VTdems) August 11, 2018
Unlike Scott’s supporters, who argue that the current economic strength is a plus for the governor, Hasan says the economy is a negative.
“This year saw the governor holding the state budget hostage over his demand to use one-time money to lower property tax rates for non-residential properties,” he wrote. “This may seem like good politics but using one-time money to keep down rates temporarily will only result in much higher property taxes down the road.”
Hasan also downplayed the notion that new gun laws have hurt Scott’s popularity.
House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, told True North that Vermont is seeing fiscal restraint return to the state after years of big spending and higher taxes, and that the governor deserves the credit.
“After six years of one-party rule and out-of-control spending and taxation, Governor Scott’s strong leadership started to turn the tide,” he said. “Vermonters are finally able to keep more of what they earn.
“Working with Republican legislators, we’ve prioritized fiscal restraint and enacted pro-growth policies that will make Vermont stronger. I look forward to continuing this with him over the next two years.”