Eric Davis: Might Scott follow Jeffords’ path out of GOP?

The state of Republican politics in Vermont is illustrated by a series of tweets sent last Saturday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy started the day by tweeting that he and his wife “spent my birthday at the American Cemetery at Normandy. Like all who come here, we’re so moved by the sacrifices of those who fought for democracy. We’ve been to these gravesites many times, and as I laid a wreath here today I gave my thanks again.”
In response to Leahy, Gov. Phil Scott tweeted that “as a son of a WWII vet who was severely injured after D-Day I appreciate the honorable way you spent the day.” This is the time-honored spirit of Vermont politics. Officeholders respect each other across party lines, recognizing that they are in public life to serve larger ideas.
At roughly the same time, Brady Toensing, vice-chair of the Vermont Republican Party, tweeted a news story about the gun legislation passed by the Vermont Senate with the comment: “A sad day in Vermont. Republican governor breaks repeated pledge: will sign gun bill taking rights from law-abiding citizens with no increase in safety. More to come next session.”
Toensing is one of the more visible Vermont Republicans who, unlike Scott, have maintained their ties to the national party. Toensing’s targets are rarely Republicans. Usually his attacks are aimed at high-profile figures in other parties, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and his wife Jane. In this case, however, Toensing has directed his ire at his own party’s governor.
Scott’s decision to support the gun legislation, which was approved with mostly Democratic votes, does represent a change in his previous position on gun issues. As the governor said about a month ago, he came to a different conclusion on this topic after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the discovery of a plan by a former student at Fair Haven Union High School to engage in a mass shooting at that school.
The Fair Haven incident, in particular, led the governor to conclude that Vermont was not immune to the risk of high-casualty episodes of gun violence. As he put it in a statement last Friday announcing his support for the recent legislation, “As governor, I have a moral and legal obligation and responsibility to provide for the safety of our citizens. If we are at a point when our kids are afraid to go to school and parents are afraid to put their kids on a bus, who are we?”
Toensing was the chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Vermont in 2016 and continues to be one of the president’s prominent supporters in the state. Scott, of course, has never been an admirer of Trump, stated publicly that he did not vote for him either in the primary or the general election in 2016, and has spoken out against many of Trump’s policies — on immigration, trade, health care, and Justice Department interference with traditional state functions, among other matters.
Scott will probably face opposition in the Republican primary this year from a candidate on the right of the party who will run as a supporter of Trump and as an opponent of any restrictions on gun or ammunition sales. Keith Stern, the owner of a Springfield-based grocery business, says that he is seriously considering such a candidacy.
When former U.S. Rep. and Sen. Jim Jeffords was a Republican, he routinely faced opposition in primaries from right-wing candidates, who typically received 20 to 30 percent of the vote. If Scott continues to be harried by Republicans such as Toensing and Stern, might he decide to follow Jeffords’ path and become a political independent before his time in the governor’s office comes to an end?
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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