Politics

In the Republican lieutenant governor primary, one candidate sees an existential crisis. The other doesn’t ‘buy into that.’

Gregory Thayer, left, and Joe Benning. File photos by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In the leadup to Vermont’s Aug. 9 primary, all eyes have been on the hotly contested Democratic primary for Vermont’s sole seat in the U.S. House, and for good reason: This year marks the first open congressional race in Vermont since 2006, and political observers and candidates themselves suspect that whoever wins the Democratic nomination is poised to head to Capitol Hill.

But in the eyes of Republican state senator and lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Joe Benning, Vermont’s Republican primary poses a more existential question. He sees it as a referendum on the future of the Grand Old Party in Vermont.

“There is still a division within the party. I would like to be able to move on from the 2020 election, and there are folks who are in the party who cannot let go of that,” he told VTDigger last week, referring to Republican voters who falsely believe the 2020 presidential election was invalid. “Those are the folks that made it clear they despise me, and I can't do much about that.”

Benning, a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump and a 12-year veteran of the Vermont Senate representing Caledonia County, is the moderate candidate of the primary contest. His opponent, former Rutland City GOP Chair Gregory Thayer, has aligned himself with Trump and his agenda. Thayer attended the Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C. that preceded the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

With the Democratic U.S. House primary absorbing so much public attention, and an open primary system allowing any Vermonter to cast a primary ballot in any political party, Benning said he worries that turnout in the Republican primary will be lower than usual. And if moderates and independents pull Democratic ballots at a higher number, he worries the remaining Republican voters will fall to the extreme right of the political spectrum.

“I would say 90% of the conversations that I have are people who are telling me I have nothing to worry about, which is immediately causing me to worry,” Benning said. 

There’s no way to confirm Benning’s theory about lower Republican turnout before Election Day. A breakdown of primary participation by party will be released by the Secretary of State’s Office after the election.

Vermont Republican Party Chair Paul Dame said he understood the concern — before recent polling showed state Sen. Becca Balint with a blowout lead over Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in the Democratic U.S. House race.

“I think that these polls that show this huge margin may have dampened any Republican interest in crossing over, because for a Republican to cross over to vote in that race, they have to give up their vote on three important races on the Republican side,” he told VTDigger, referring to the primaries for lieutenant governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate.

Dame also doesn’t necessarily agree that Benning and Thayer’s primary competition is indicative of a larger debate over the GOP’s identity. “I don't think it's quite that clean,” he said. 

Thayer, too, said he doesn’t “buy into that.”

According to Dame, the real question before Republican voters is whether to vote for Benning, with his “record of service,” versus Thayer, who brings “new ideas, or a new perspective, or kind of an outsider's approach.”

Thayer, in an interview, dubbed Benning “an institutional guy, stuck in the Senate for 12 years.” On the other hand, he described himself as “a real guy, and I'm a good guy, and I'm friendly, and I'm honest and I'm not there to hurt anybody.”

‘We all have our right to free speech’

Benning has zeroed in on Thayer’s participation in the Jan. 6 riot as a major differentiation between the two in the race. But their differences cut deeper than that.

On June 3, Thayer organized a news conference on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier with fellow Republican primary contestants from up and down the ballot. They decried calls for increased gun control amid a wave of mass shootings throughout the country.

The news conference was held 10 days after 19 fourth-graders and two teachers were shot dead in a Uvalde, Texas, elementary school, the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. And 10 days before that, a white gunman targeted a grocery store in a historically Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 shoppers.

But when Kathi Tarrant of Waterbury, a Republican candidate for the Vermont House, took the microphone that day, she called into question whether the massacres even occurred. She parroted the baseless conspiracy theory that mass shootings are “false flag” events that never occurred, or were “orchestrated, or premeditated, or manufactured ahead of time … to conquer and divide.”

Two days later, Thayer told VTDigger in an email that he did “not agree with (Tarrant’s) statements regarding that at all.” He did not voice disagreement or cut Tarrant off at the June 3 news conference.

In June, Benning told VTDigger that he was well aware of the conspiratorial and extremist ideology “that has injected itself into the party.”

“I am appalled that that conversation has worked its way into politics. I am doubly appalled that it is working its way into my party and I am triply appalled that it has worked its way into Vermont,” he said at the time. “That is just ignorance at the highest level. And for that to become a narrative in a politician's campaign is something that has to be stopped.”

A month later, a parade float made its way through Colchester’s July 4 parade, displaying a smattering of political materials and far-right imagery — including a flag associated with fascist movements and an image of “Pepe the Frog,” a cartoon character co-opted by far-right and white nationalist groups. Also on display were Thayer’s campaign signs.

The float was led by Mark Coester, a Westminster resident, logger and candidate for both state Senate (as a Republican) and U.S. Senate (as an independent). Asked about the float on Tuesday, Thayer said he put up his campaign materials on the truck himself at Coester’s invitation. He did not know beforehand about the flag or Pepe image, and he doesn’t “subscribe to that, whatever it is. I'm just trying to get my name out there.”

Asked about the reaction to the float, he said, “I think people need to stop wearing their feelings on their sleeve. I think people need to — you know, we all have our right to free speech.”

In a July statement, Benning railed against Thayer for the parade incident, saying his opponent displayed “a disturbing pattern of behavior.”

“I find it gravely troubling that Mr. Thayer has continued to defend the indefensible, courting those that promote conspiracy theories, fascist iconography, and white nationalism,” Benning said at the time. “As a Vermont Republican, I do not believe these attitudes represent our party's cherished history of respect and integrity.”

‘Does the party survive?’

There is a common adage in Montpelier that Vermont Republicans are not the same as national Republicans. Gov. Phil Scott takes pride in his position as a moderate Republican, and he is enormously popular in the state, especially with Democrats and independents.

But Vermont Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Dandeneau said that far-right radicalization does not stop at the state border.

“It has its tendrils in everything, from the Vermont Republican primary for lieutenant governor, to the Vermont Republican primary the U.S. Senate, to the Essex school board, to the Burlington Republican Party,” Dandeneau said. “They are rife with extremists.”

Scott has told reporters numerous times that he has no plans to retreat from the Republican Party, although he, too, has been a critic of Trump and the far-right movement. Asked the same question by VTDigger, Benning said he looks to fellow Republicans like Scott and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and still sees a place for himself in the party.

“If the party morphs into being something that's intolerant, is hateful, is locked into a given position on social issues in such a way that they say, ‘It's our way or the highway,’ I'd have to take an opportunity to think long and hard about what my future is,” Benning said.

Asked whether he thinks the party has reached that point already, Benning said no. He sees Scott’s own poll numbers and thinks, “There's enough Republicans out there who feel the same way that I do. That's why I'm running in the party.”

Benning has been endorsed by a slew of moderate Republican lawmakers, including Scott. In his late July endorsement, Scott said that Benning “has the same vision that I do for the Republican Party getting back to our roots in terms of fiscal responsibility.” Scott and Benning have been political allies for years, dating back to Scott’s time as lieutenant governor. Benning has also been endorsed by former-Gov. Jim Douglas, House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock and others.

Thayer told VTDigger on Tuesday that he doesn’t “go after political endorsements. My endorsements come from… the everyday people.”

“To me, it's about people. People want to do the right things, but sometimes… we stray off a little bit. But we're not bad people. We're good people,” Thayer said. “There's a lot of passion out there for what's going on.”

In a recent poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, Benning is leading Thayer by 13 points among survey participants who said they’d vote in the Republican primary. Thirty-three percent of likely voters said they would cast their ballot for Benning, and 20% for Thayer. But roughly half remained undecided, and the margin of error for the poll was 7%.

According to the poll, Benning also has the benefit of greater name recognition: 57% of respondents said they didn’t know enough about Thayer to have an opinion on him, compared to 44% for Benning. But of those who do recognize them, Thayer has Benning beat on favorability by a slim margin. Fourteen percent of respondents said they view Thayer favorably, compared to 9% for Benning.

Thayer told VTDigger that if Benning wins the primary, he will vote for him in the general election “because I support Republicans.” 

Benning doesn’t say the same of his opponent. “That's not the kind of individual that I want to see representing the Republican Party,” Benning said, referring to Thayer.

Asked if he would run as an independent in the general election if he doesn’t prevail in the primary, Benning said he wouldn’t be inclined to.

“I don't have any intention of losing,” Benning said. “The issue for me is, if I am defeated in the primary, does the party survive? It's a clear dividing line between me and my opponent. And if my opponent wins in that regard, I do not believe he has the capacity to come anywhere close to winning in a general election. So what does that do to the party?”

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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