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Eric Davis: Trump poses problem for Vt. GOP

Donald Trump’s clinching the Republican presidential nomination will pose challenges for Vermont Republicans. In order to win statewide races, GOP candidates need the votes of independents, who disapprove of Trump by large margins.
Trump did win the Vermont Republican primary in March, with 33 percent of the vote. However, he received only 10 percent of all votes cast on Town Meeting Day. In November, Trump could well receive less than 40 percent of the Vermont presidential vote.
Trump’s only hope of doing better in Vermont would be a low turnout resulting from thousands of disenchanted Bernie Sanders supporters staying home rather than voting for Hillary Clinton.
The Vermont Republican who faces the greatest challenges with Trump at the top of the GOP ticket is Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the likely winner of the Republican gubernatorial primary. Scott should be able to withstand these challenges. He is a well-known figure, about whom many voters have an opinion independent of his Republican ballot label. In 2004 and 2008, Jim Douglas demonstrated that Republicans can win the governorship in Vermont even in years when Democratic presidential candidates receive well over 60 percent of the vote in the state.
Scott has also made clear his opposition to Trump’s candidacy. He spoke out against Trump’s style and issue positions before the March primary. Scott told reporters last week that he will write in Jim Douglas’ name on his presidential ballot in November.
Bruce Lisman, the other candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary, has been more coy about Trump. While he supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the primary, Lisman has yet to disassociate himself from Trump. Perhaps he wants to curry favor with the small group of conservative Vermont Republicans who have never been enthusiastic about Scott, because they believe he has not done enough to sharpen differences between the Republican and Democratic parties in the state.
Some of these conservative Vermont Republicans support Trump, among them Darcie Johnston, Trump’s newly named state director, who has led intra-party efforts against moderate Vermont Republicans in the past. In any case, Lisman’s hesitancy in speaking out against Trump may not bode well for his ability to be a gubernatorial candidate with broad appeal in November.
Another Vermont Republican who could be affected by backlash against Trump is Scott Milne. Milne, who nearly defeated Gov. Shumlin in 2014, is likely to announce soon that he will oppose Sen. Patrick Leahy’s re-election in November. This will be a difficult race to begin with — Leahy is much more popular in Vermont than Shumlin, and the turnout this fall will be much higher than two years ago, when Milne benefited from the lowest off-year turnout in Vermont in 50 years.
Milne will have to answer questions about his support for the national Republican agenda, and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s continuing as Senate Majority Leader. Unlike House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has said he cannot support Trump, McConnell told reporters that he will support the Republican nominee. Milne should explain to Vermonters why they should vote for someone who would continue Republican control of the U.S. Senate, in a year in which Democratic candidates are well-placed to reclaim the Senate majority.
Finally, GOP lieutenant governor candidate Randy Brock will need to take a position on Trump. Johnston, Trump’s state director, served as Brock’s campaign manager in his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2012, and tried to convince him to run against Shumlin in 2014. If Brock does not distinguish himself from Trump, the GOP could face challenges in holding on to the lieutenant governorship, especially if House Speaker Shap Smith decides to enter the Democratic primary for that office and ends up defeating Rep. Kesha Ram and Sen. David Zuckerman in the August primary.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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