Even those who won Vermont’s Republican primary elections on Tuesday say they’re baffled by the results.
In the race for U.S. Senate, GOP voters rejected former U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan, a moderate and institutional favorite, for Gerald Malloy, a Trump-aligned conservative. They nominated Sen. Joe Benning, an anti-Trump centrist, for lieutenant governor, intead of Gregory Thayer, who took part in the protests before the Jan. 6 riots in Washington, D.C. And they turned down two conservative activists, Ericka Redic and Anya Tynio, in favor of a left-leaning independent, Liam Madden.
“It's a head-scratcher to me,” Madden said of finding himself on the GOP ticket alongside Malloy.
Perhaps the biggest upset of the night was Malloy’s defeat of Nolan, though a July poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed him with a slight lead. Malloy, a West Point graduate and 22-year Army veteran who moved to Vermont just two years ago, won close to 40% of the vote. Nolan, who picked up the endorsements of Gov. Phil Scott and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., garnered just 35%.
Reached Thursday, Malloy struck a unifying tone, saying that moderates like Scott belong in his GOP.
“I see us as one party, and I see us as rallying together for this general election,” Malloy told VTDigger.
But his association with the party’s conservative wing suggests he is not quite a Phil Scott Republican. Which legislators does he admire? Malloy pointed to Rep. Art Peterson, R-Clarendon, and Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, whose endorsement he earned.
“Just great Vermonters, great Americans, just doing the best for Vermont,” Malloy said. (He also cited President Abraham Lincoln, “the first Republican President,” as a favorite.)
The two representatives Malloy mentioned inhabit the outer edge of the GOP. Peterson made the rounds at Thayer’s anti-Critical Race Theory rallies and, in a House committee meeting, questioned whether systemic racism exists. Strong, meanwhile, is among the Legislature’s most outspoken opponents of abortion rights and has said she would not comply with mask and vaccine mandates.
“I certainly seek to emulate how they perform for the state,” Malloy said.
That emulation might explain his success. Malloy cited his experience in business and in the military as key to his victory, but others suggested it was Nolan’s lack of conservative bonafides.
“She refused to answer the question of who she voted for (for president),” said H. Brooke Paige, a regular on the Republican ballot who picked up nominations for attorney general, auditor, secretary of state and treasurer on Tuesday. “She started to blow off the debates and forums or whatever we were having.”
Paige said Nolan was notably absent at four events he attended. In the week leading up to the primary, Nolan’s failure to show up to a Vermont Republican Party economic forum in St. Albans drew the ire of fellow Senate candidate Myers Mermel, who picked up 17% of Tuesday’s vote and had throughout the race gone on the offensive against Nolan. His attacks against Nolan left Malloy safe above the fray.
“I was somewhat surprised to see Gerald Malloy beat out Christina Nolan. I attributed a lot of that to the third candidate, Myers Mermel, spending a lot of money and time bashing Christina,” said Benning, the Caledonia County senator who won the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. “I think Gerald Malloy took advantage of staying out of that.”
Asked about his decision to target Nolan, Mermel said it was a service to voters. “I believed it was the right thing for me to do to make sure that people knew the truth about the establishment candidate,” he told VTDigger.
But rather than his attacks, Mermel suggested, it was Nolan’s endorsements from McConnell and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that cost her with Vermonters, as did her outspoken willingness to disagree with her potential Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate. “I had heard repeatedly from the people I spoke to that they didn't want to see a Republican like that get elected,” Mermel said.
(The Nolan campaign did not respond to an interview request on Thursday.)
While Malloy took hardline anti-abortion and anti-gun-reform stances, Nolan said she supported Roe v. Wade and red flag laws. She is also lesbian and has spoken in favor of marriage equality. On a night in which women dominated the Democratic ticket, not a single woman won statewide for the Republicans. Could identity politics have played a role?
“When it came down to Christina's sexuality, it is quite possible, I have to concede, that there were voters who were using that as the excuse to not vote for her,” particularly those “off the right-wing edge,” Benning said.
That right-wing edge threatened to spoil Benning’s own primary night. A Phil Scott-endorsed moderate with libertarian leanings, he won the GOP race for lieutenant governor with 48% of the vote, defeating Thayer, former chair of the Rutland Republican Party, who picked up 40%. That race, closer than some expected, divided along geographic lines, with Thayer performing well in the southwestern corner of the state near his Rutland home, and Benning carrying the Northeast Kingdom.
Other than Scott, who faced minimal opposition, Benning was the lone establishment pick to win statewide for the GOP on Tuesday.
Malloy and Thayer were not the only far-right candidates to outperform expectations. Mark Coester, who drew condemnation for flying alt-right and fascist flags in parades across the state, appeared to have topped two other candidates for a Windham County Senate nomination, though the uncertified vote count was close. Coester’s apparent victory came after Paul Dame, chair of the state GOP, said the party was not backing Coester in the race.
But a rightward shift could not explain the Republican contest to fill Welch’s soon-to-be vacant seat in the U.S. House.
Madden, who picked up the GOP nomination, positioned himself left of his Republican colleagues by offering qualified support for Medicare-for-all and red flag laws. An independent, Madden bested Tynio and Redic, both dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. After his victory Tuesday, Madden even suggested he would decline the Republican nomination and run as an independent, as he had long pledged to do, though he has since backtracked.
No Republican candidate ventured to explain the ideological inconsistencies of Tuesday’s winners.
“How is it that the party voted to go with a candidate on the far right, which is Gerald Malloy, for Senate, and then voted for a candidate on the far left, which is Liam Madden?” asked Mermel, the U.S. Senate candidate. “How does that make sense?”
Nor could Benning explain his party’s voters.
“I think it's fair to say the party is very divided,” he told VTDigger.
“It has me scratching my head, wondering who were the Republicans voting for him?” Benning said of Madden’s victory. “He clearly is not a Republican.”
Dame declined an interview for this story, instead directing questions to a press release he sent out Thursday afternoon. Although primarily a rousing Republican message, his letter nonetheless showed some reservations with Madden’s victory.
He noted that “a majority of Republicans split their vote between two conservative women for U.S. House,” and Madden, who only won a plurality, relied on left-leaning foreign affairs and climate change policies that likely appealed to independents.
Madden beat Redic, a conservative content creator, by eight points in Tuesday’s primary, earning 35% of the vote to Redic’s 27%. Tynio, who serves on the Orleans County GOP Committee, won 22.6% of the vote.
Redic announced Thursday that she was not conceding the election and, attacking Madden, will instead run in November as a Libertarian.
“Mr. Madden thinks he can make a joke and a mockery out of the Republican Party,” Redic said on a livestream Thursday morning.
Ideologically, Redic and Malloy have much in common. She invited the would-be senator onto her talk show back in May, and the two conservatives “spent a lot of time” together on the campaign trail, according to Malloy.
But Madden? “I honestly had not seen much of him in the last six, seven months,” Malloy said, adding he was “surprised” by the independent’s win.
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