This most unusual election year has an unusual primary campaign for the Republican nomination for governor. Four candidates are trying to unseat Gov. Phil Scott, a popular incumbent who has won bi-partisan acclaim for his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The candidates include someone who voted for Scott in the past, a candidate who favors a new monetary system, and a convicted sex offender who wants to eliminate the prison system.
Brookfield Republican John Klar finished up a news conference on the Statehouse lawn, by hammering again and again on his themes of addressing the opioid crisis, tackling the state’s pension deficit, and cutting government spending.
Klar, sweating in his blue suit, described the Legislature as a swollen tick engorged with taxpayer money.
“Let’s pop the bloated dome and then let’s get back to making government more responsive like the rest of us have to be,” he said.
Klar said he’s on the Libertarian side of the Republican Party. He’s voted for Phil Scott in the past – and for Barrack Obama for president. But he said he gave up on Scott after the governor signed gun control legislation into law in 2018 and then signed a bill preserving a woman’s right to an abortion the following year.
“So we have a crisis within the Vermont party which has led to this becoming virtually a one party state,” he said. “So what we are saying to other Republicans, especially now, is: How far progressive does Phil Scott have to become [for you] to realize Phil Scott is not serving your interests anymore?”
Klar, a lawyer and a farmer, is the only one of the four challengers to have a bit of campaign money and an organization. Burlington conservative political donor Lenore Broughton gave $4,160 to his campaign, and he’s drawn other contributions from the conservative wing of the party.
Middlebury College political science professor Matthew Dickinson said any challenger faces a tough race against incumbents in Vermont. He said that’s especially true this year when Scott has dominated the airwaves with frequent news briefings where he details the state’s response to the pandemic.
“You can’t buy that kind of free publicity. It’s all positive, non-partisan coverage,” he said. “It’s coverage that focuses on an issue that affects all Vermonters, regardless of your ideology or your partisan beliefs. And so I think that has made it a greater climb for his opponents to defeat him.”
The only way to gain any ground would be to out-hustle Scott on the campaign trail, Dickinson said. But that’s also much harder with the physical distancing currently required to stay healthy.
Dickinson said, assuming Scott wins the August primary, it may have been helpful to have weathered criticism from the party's conservative wing.
“That actually, I think, plays to Scott's advantage,” he said. “If he is in fact the nominee, being attacked from your right sort of makes it easier to portray yourself as a typical moderate Republican, which is the only type of Republican that plays well in Vermont.”
For his part, Scott, the two-term incumbent, said he isn’t campaigning. He said his campaign doesn’t have any staff, and in fact he replies personally to emails sent to his campaign office. Although he’s sparred with the Democratically controlled Legislature over spending issues and a paid family leave bill, he said he’s trying to avoid politics while he deals with the COVID crisis.
“You know, when I first started this journey running for governor I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to leave the office in better shape than I found it,” he said. “And at this point in time, that’s not possible. So I think we have to finish what we started.”
Scott is getting a boost from the Republican Governors Association, which is running a video ad on Facebook touting the governor’s “strong leadership” in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
That kind of help has not been available to the other GOP gubernatorial candidates, who try to get their message out through media interviews, profiles or debates. That’s the case for Bernard Peters, a 74-year-old retired state employee from Irasburg.
Peters' message doesn’t require a detailed position paper to deliver. Like Klar, he focuses on government spending and gun rights.
“He [Scott] said he was going to stay with the sportsmen and help the sportsmen and the gun owners,” Peters said. “And he didn’t. That bothers me because I’ve been an NRA member forever.”
Peters said he knows about government waste from his years working for the Transportation Agency.
“I worked for the state for 35 years and I’ve seen so much waste it was scary,” he said. “You know, you got to have more accountability.”
Candidate Douglas Cavett of Milton also has his eye on changing government priorities. Cavett wants to create a “University of Wellness and Equity” to replace Vermont’s prison system.
“What we have is a major problem with this, what people like to call a ‘criminal justice system,’ which is really a criminal financial system,” he said. “And it’s creating abuse [of] Vermont citizens, [in] Vermont families, Vermont communities.”
Cavett said he has experience with the correctional system, both personally and through friends. He was convicted 10 years ago on one count of aggravated sexual assault on a child. When asked about that, he refused to talk about the case.
“Yeah, I’m sure [you can] Google everything and it’s all there for you,” he said. “But I will not give validation to any of that. There is no validation in these corrupt charges and/or so-called convictions.”
Cavett’s other main issue is health spending. He said he wants to limit health insurance increases and cut hospital costs.
Putney resident Emily Peyton is seeking a societal change on another level. Peyton said she wants to start with a new monetary system based on what she calls the “Vermont exchange,” that would operate outside U.S. currency. Like Cavett, her platform also includes criminal justice reform.
“Creating a monetary system, a system of doing business that increases a virtuous economy, and allows for the people to fulfill their self-directed purpose, is the best way we can support the police, the best way we can support each other,” she said.
Peyton has run frequently for office; in the last cycle she was a Liberty Union candidate. She said she first felt the call to run for political office at the age of five. She counts herself a fan of libertarian Ron Paul, which is among the reasons she said she’s seeking the Republican nomination this time.
“Ron Paul has had the same ideas,” she said. “These aren’t radical; they are transformative. They are needed. Our times call for them.”
But it’s an extreme longshot that Vermont Republicans are willing to transform their party to the extent advocated for by the four primary challengers.
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