Politics

Mark MacDonald defends Orange County Senate seat from challenge by John Klar

John Klar, left, and Mark MacDonald. File photos by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Longtime state Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, defeated Republican John Klar to keep his seat in Orange County.

In a closely watched race that Republicans hoped would hand them a seat in the upper chamber, MacDonald received 48% of the vote on Tuesday to Klar’s 38%, a wider margin of victory than MacDonald’s 2020 campaign against Republican Bill T. Huff.

The 79-year-old senator from Williamstown suffered a stroke in October, taking him off the campaign trail in the final weeks before the election. Instead, a team of surrogates took on MacDonald’s get-out-the-vote efforts.

“Frankly, I was shocked that, when I was unable to stand on my own two feet here for a while, there was an army out there doing the legwork for me,” MacDonald said in an interview Wednesday morning. 

On Tuesday, MacDonald moved from an acute rehab facility in Chittenden County to Mayo Healthcare in Northfield. He said he expects to return home around Dec. 1, and he looks forward to returning to Montpelier in January. In the meantime, he has some catching up to do. 

“My goal in the next few days here is to get my mailbox emptied enough to be able to speak with the folks who have been calling, and to do thank-yous to folks who have, out of nowhere, showed up like Vermont neighbors do,” MacDonald said. “When something happens to your neighbor, they're there to put wood on your front porch, to do what needs to be done to get you through the crisis.”

MacDonald, a retired teacher and farmer and a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, was appointed to the Vermont House in 1983 to fill a vacancy created by the death of his mother. MacDonald was elected to the Vermont Senate in 1996 and held the seat until 2000, when his vote for civil unions contributed to his defeat. He won the seat back in 2002 and has served in the chamber ever since. 

John Klar gives an interview at the GOP election night party Nov. 8, 2022, in Barre. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

At around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, MacDonald led the race with more than half of towns in the district reporting results. 

Klar, who was at the Vermont GOP election night gathering at the Barre Elks Lodge, told a reporter, “It's up in the air. I should have had a stroke. It would have been good. It's a big qualification these days.”

The race remained too close to call until after 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, when it became clear MacDonald would hold the seat. At that point, Klar changed his tune.

“My number 1 issue has been and remains to bolster Vermont agriculture and regenerative farming,” he wrote in an email to VTDigger. “I will continue to press for that, and also to reduce regressive policies and government bloat.”

Leading up to the election, both Democratic and Republican leaders had flagged Orange County as a battleground. 

Klar, a Brookfield farmer, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2020. The network he developed in that campaign helped energize his Senate race this time around. 

The conservative candidate also used his battle with Randolph schools — on critical race theory and the Black Lives Matter movement, transgender rights and equity — as a central part of his campaign strategy. His rhetoric often resembled nationwide conservative messaging, and he gained some traction with Orange County’s rural electorate. 

“It was culture wars,” MacDonald said of the race. “That was different.”

Campaign signs for Mark MacDonald and John Klar
In Williamstown, voters were choosing Tuesday between Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, and Republican John Klar. Photo by Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

On Tuesday afternoon, outside the Williamstown Middle and High School polling location, a slow but steady stream of voters voiced mixed opinions about MacDonald.

Becky Watson, a retiree in her 80s who doesn’t identify with any party, said she was sticking with the incumbent.

“I have to go with Mark,” she said. “I don’t like what Klar writes.”

Father and son Scott and Ryan McCarthy, both of Williamstown, were leaving the polls at the same time Tuesday. 

Ryan, a 27-year old tin knocker, said his desire to vote out MacDonald motivated him to cast a ballot this election.

“I don’t think he puts Williamstown’s interest — or anyone’s interest — first,” he said. “John Klar stands with what I value more.”

Scott, a self-employed construction worker, said he’d voted for MacDonald 40 years ago. Now, though, the 59-year old Republican was supporting Klar.

“Mark’s a good guy. He just goes along with everything the Democrats want,” Scott said. 

The campaign continued — from rehab

While MacDonald recuperated from his stroke, Klar blasted out messages to his supporters in online videos and social media posts, and mailed postcards to homes across the district. 

In one mailer, Klar accused MacDonald of voting “to increase taxes on heating oil,” which MacDonald called inaccurate. From rehab, he and his team figured out how to respond. 

“There was no such vote on (a) tax on heating oil. There just hadn't been one,” MacDonald said. Unlike races past, during which the candidates debated issues, MacDonald felt misinformation played an unprecedented role in this campaign. 

Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, right, confers with Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, helped pull together a team to support MacDonald’s campaign.

“I feel really good about what we were able to accomplish. It was everything from radio ads, to canvassing, to calling, to listservs, to Front Porch Forum, to letters to the editors,” she said. “I'm pleased that some of the misinformation that had been sown was corrected.” 

Clarkson couldn’t help but point out the similarities between the Orange County state Senate race and the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who had a stroke during his campaign, beat out celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz. 

“Fetterman and MacDonald did well last night,” she said. “The voters supported them and saw beyond the challenges they face right now.”

Shaun Robinson contributed reporting.

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