Gun group seeks Gov. Scott’s defeat

MONTPELIER — In recent weeks, Ed Cutler has registered about 40 voters for the upcoming primary. He is working to galvanize members of his organization, Gun Owners of Vermont, to defeat Republican Gov. Phil Scott in the primary election Aug. 14 because of his enactment of new firearms restrictions in April. The group also wants to vote out lawmakers who championed gun control measures.
Since February, the group has nearly tripled in size to 7,000 members — rapid growth that followed lawmakers’ decision to put a sweeping proposal to restrict the state’s gun laws on the table, Cutler said.
Now that the new gun restrictions have become law, he says thousands of gun owners will turn out to unseat Scott and targeted lawmakers.
“People are really heated up and I can’t blame them. There’s so many things wrong with that bill,” Cutler said, referring to the centerpiece of last session’s gun legislation, S.55.
The legislation Scott signed in April expanded background checks to private sales, raised the age to purchase a firearm to 21, banned bump stocks and limited magazine size for handguns and rifles.
In a sleepy, off-year primary for which dismal turnout is expected, gun rights advocates stand out as a small group of energized voters. Many of them feel spurned by Scott, who they believe broke a promise he delivered on the campaign trail in 2016: a pledge to fight against efforts to change state gun statutes. Until April, Vermont had among the least restrictive laws in the country.
While political experts say it’s unlikely gun activists will muster the votes to oust the governor, their mobilization could put on full display the extent to which he has lost the support of a segment of the base that helped carry him to political victory two years ago.
In an interview Monday, Scott acknowledged he was concerned about opposition from gun rights advocates, particularly in an election where he anticipates low turnout.
 “They’re energized because they’re angry,” he said.
On the Republican side, Scott’s only challenger Keith Stern, a grocer from Springfield with no political experience, has blasted the incumbent governor for his pivot on gun control and criticized him for his views as a moderate Republican.
Another pro-gun politician, Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, is running as a write-in candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, buoyed by supporters who oppose Scott’s embrace of the gun control measures.
Scott has stood by his decision, a change of heart he says he experienced after law enforcement reported they had thwarted a mass shooting at a high school in Fair Haven, just days after the deadly February shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida.
“I know that I disappointed a lot of people. I regret disappointing people, but at the same time I had to look myself in the mirror,” Scott said in a debate with Stern last month. “If that ever happened in Vermont I’m not sure I could say at the time that we had done all we could.”
A Morning Consult poll from last month shows that among Republicans and independents Scott’s approval rating dropped dramatically after he signed the gun laws.
Political analysts who conducted the poll pinned the plummet on Scott’s decision on guns. His approval rating is highest among Democrats.
Scott said Monday that channeling the support of Democrats and independents in Tuesday’s primary will likely be challenging, because voting for him would involve casting a ballot in the GOP primary.
“There’s a lot of independents and maybe even a few conservative Democrats that are supporting me, but don’t necessarily want to turn out for a primary where they have to pull a Republican ballot,” he said.
Richard Clark, a professor of political science at Castleton University, said that while Scott’s stance on guns will help him pick up votes in the general election, it makes him more vulnerable in the primary.
A mobilized block of Republican voters who oppose him on the issue, could wield large influence in the context of low overall turnout.
“When we’re looking at small numbers, large movements can make a difference,” he said.
Clark said he doesn’t believe Scott will lose the primary on Tuesday, but noted that it’s the largest obstacle he faces in his re-election bid.
“We need to recognize that his primary is his biggest hurdle … If he’s going to stumble this is going to be where it is,” Clark said. “I still find it unlikely, but if I am running the Scott campaign I’m more concerned about the primary than the general.
Brittney Wilson, Scott’s campaign manager said that to spur turnout in the Republican primary, the campaign is relying on data it has collected to target Vermonters who are known Scott supporters and reminding them to vote on Tuesday.
“We’re not taking anything for granted and certainly working harder than ever to make sure our folks turn out in this primary,” Wilson said. “But I do think at the end of the day we’ll be successful, and our efforts to target our supporters will prove to be a smart move.”
Gun Owners of Vermont is encouraging its members to vote for Stern if they’re casting a Republican ballot, or Rodgers, if they’re voting for Democrats, Cutler said.
“There’ll be a pretty big turnout in the gun people,” he said.
In an unusual move, the Republican Governors Association has dumped $225,000 into independent spending on ads to support Scott’s primary campaign through a political action committee, A Stronger Vermont. Last election cycle the RGA came in after the primary.

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