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A Republican primary for lieutenant governor reveals a broader divide in Vermont GOP

A long line of people on a snow-covered sidewalk in Burlington
Taylor Dobbs
/
VPR file
Hundreds of Vermonters waited in line for hours to see Donald Trump speak at the Flynn Theater in 2015. More than seven years later, the former president's presence still looms large over state-level politics in Vermont.

Joe Benning is a pro-choice moderate who’s denounced Donald Trump and condemned the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Gregory Thayer is a Christian conservative who organized a bus trip to Washington on Jan. 6 to support Trump’s claims of election fraud.

The two men are facing off in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, and some of their supporters are calling the race a battle for the soul of the Vermont GOP.

On a recent morning in downtown Rutland, Thayer sat in the dimly lit dining room of a century-old restaurant owned by family friends.

Thayer said being in the place reminds him of childhood days working at his dad’s food business in Rutland, called Helene’s Variety Store and Deli.

“They were great parents,” he said. “They were always there for us. They provided well. We worked. We learned the value of a dollar early. We learned hard work.”

Those childhood lessons, Thayer said, are at the core of who he is today.

“God, country, family. You know, work hard, treat people as you want to be treated,” he said. “That was the big thing, you know — respect everybody.”

Watch: Vermont Public's primary debate between Thayer and Benning

Those values are also the reason Thayer organized a bus trip from Burlington to Washington to bring more than 50 fellow Vermonters to Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6.

“I was there, and I’m glad I was there, because I was standing up for our Constitution,” he said.

For candidates like Thayer, Trump’s actions that day, and the weeks leading up to it, haven’t at all hurt his standing in the Republican Party. If fact, Thayer said, they’ve burnished it.

A man in a tan blazer and blue shirt standing on the sidewalk in downtown Rutland
Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR
Gregory Thayer standing in downtown Rutland recently.

“Right now he’s probably the leader of the Republican Party in a lot of ways. Some will denounce that, like Mr. Benning,” he said. “But I firmly believe that… he is the leader of the party.”

Joe Benning has in fact denounced Trump, frequently and vociferously.

Benning has also had strong words for the Jan. 6 ralliers, like Thayer, who watched from the Capitol grounds as rioters sought to halt the counting of ballots.

“What I found very problematic was anybody who stepped off the curb and started marching toward the Capitol in a mob that was intent on doing something,” Benning said. “And that crosses a line for me. There was no question and remains no question in my mind that that’s the very definition of insurrection.”

Opinions of Donald Trump aren’t the only place that Benning and Thayer depart.

Thayer, a former Rutland City alderman, supports the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Benning, a six-term state senator from Caledonia County, voted in favor of a proposal that would enshrine abortion rights in the Vermont Constitution.

Thayer supports Trump’s efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Benning believes in the concept of institutional racism, and thinks it continues to disadvantage BIPOC Vermonters today.

Benning said he wishes their race could be about what he says are the bedrock principles of Republicanism — limited government, a free market economy, public education, personal responsibility and liberty.

“Beyond those five principles, there are all kinds of social issues where a wedge is immediately driven into the party membership,” he said.

For some GOP voters though, the social issues Benning’s referring to are what define the differences between the two candidates.

“Not interested in democracy”

Richard Ley, a lifelong Vermonter who’s active in Republican social media forums, has been following the race between Benning and Thayer.

He said his decision on Election Day won’t be a difficult one.

A man in a dark suit and red tie, standing in front of the Vermont Statehouse
Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR
Joe Benning on a recent trip to Montpelier.

“One of these people, and it’s Joe Benning, seems like a sellout to my party and to my values,” Ley said. “They other person, Greg Thayer, stands up for everything I like.”

Ley views Benning as the latest in a line of Vermont Republicans who’ve spurned their own by supporting the “liberal agenda.”

“And it was started by Phil Scott, who voted for Joe Biden — just think about that. Who voted for this mess that’s happening in America today,” Ley said. “Our governor did that. He’s a traitor to the Republican Party.”

Some of the Vermont Republicans that Ley brands as “traitors” also see this GOP primary for lieutenant governor as an existential moment for the party.

“I think what it’s really getting at is, is the Republican Party going to be a party that’s known as being a supporter of democracy? Or are they not?” said Scott Beck, a Republican who represents St. Johnsbury in the Vermont House of Representatives. “And it seems that Greg Thayer, based on his actions in and around Jan. 6 and his comments since Jan. 6, is not interested in democracy.”

Beck isn’t too afraid of Thayer winning the primary election. He said only a small minority of Republican-identifying voters in Vermont, including Trump voters, share his far-right views.

What scares Beck is the impact Thayer’s candidacy could have on voters’ perception of that the GOP stands for.

“You know, they’ve made it really difficult for a lot of Vermonters to even consider voting for somebody with an ‘R’ after their name,” he said.

Phil Scott has fared just fine since the rise of Trumpism. In 2020, he defeated a liberal Democratic challenger by 40 percentage points. And polls have repeatedly shown that Scott enjoys majority support from Republican and Democratic voters.

The GOP has not enjoyed the same results down ballot. In the six years since Scott was elected governor, Republicans have lost 10 seats in the Vermont House of Representatives.

“I told people, 'We’ve got to get people running for these school boards, and we need good people for school board, city council, and the state rep positions and appointed.' Because there’s a lot of unelected people making decisions."
Gregory Thayer, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor

And state party leadership has, so far at least, been unwilling to adopt the explicitly anti-Trump rhetoric that’s been so politically effective for Scott.

“The Vermont GOP really hasn’t done that,” Beck said. “I mean right out of the gate, first thing they did, they had a ‘Let’s Go Brandon Rally.’"

Thayer is far more optimistic about the path ahead for pro-Trump Republicans in Vermont. They’re concerned about the direction this state is headed in, he said, and energized and motivated to do something about it.

“I told people, 'We’ve got to get people running for these school boards, and we need good people for school board, city council, and the state rep positions and appointed.' Because there’s a lot of unelected people making decisions,” he said.

It isn’t just moderate Republicans like Scott Beck who are concerned about a scenario in which they prevail.

Rey Garofano, a Democratic House representative from Essex, worked to beat back an anti-critical race theory campaign in her local schools last year.

The group became emboldened, Garofono said, after one of their own won a seat on the school board.

“And it was kind of shock to our community because our school board had been a model for advancing racial equity and the community was really behind that work,” she said.

That board member has since left, and Garofano said the town has elected three progressive board members that share the school's commitment to racial equity.

But she said the experience underscored the importance of state and local elections, and the potential tenuousness of recent gains on issues like racial equity.

“If our selectboard has many members that has those views, then we wouldn’t be celebrating Juneteenth, or we wouldn’t have the town involved in making Essex a more welcoming place for New Americans,” Garofano said.

Examining the ideology

Hear the second part of the story, here:

Trump has become a polarizing figure within the Republican Party, and his influence on electoral politics has been evident in GOP primaries across the country this year.

Trump hasn’t issued any endorsements in Vermont yet, but the former president is inspiring Republican candidacies up and down the primary ballot here.

Some of those candidacies are grounded in an ideological worldview that Thayer has sought to promote through television and townhalls.

On May 11, Thayer hosted his local access television show in Rutland with special guest Ed Wheeler, a Middlebury pastor who’s become a mentor of sorts for Thayer.

“Ed wrote a symposium on his own with a lot of research and writing on Americanism versus Marxism,” Thayer told his audience.

Over the past few months, Thayer and Wheeler have been touring the state to present that symposium at churches, VFW posts and public libraries.

Their thesis is that just about everything they think is wrong with the country — be it government’s response to the pandemic, border crossings by migrants, or critical race theory in schools — can be traced to a dark force.

“I feel that the real reason behind a lot of this is a Marxist invasion,” Wheeler said.

The push for racial equity in schools, the fight to keep abortion legal, the transgender rights movement — all of it they said is sewn by atheistic Marxist actors.

“They want to use this conflict, use these divisions in society to gain power,” Wheeler said. “Once they have power, no more freedom.”

By Thayer and Wheeler’s account, the communist siege on America hit its inflection point on Nov. 3, 2020.

“How did they take control of the election, maybe with the mail-in ballots, and with this Jan. 6, and what’s going on with that commission today?” Thayer asked Wheeler.

“This was a conspiracy of China and maybe other international actors and people in this country who realized it was the only way that President Trump was going to be defeated,” Wheeler responded. “There was no other way.”

Most Vermonters are probably unfamiliar with this theory of a modern-day Marxist invasion in the U.S.

But the narrative has already gained considerable traction among a bloc of conservative candidates and voters who are working hard this summer to make electoral gains in Vermont.

Three men standing on the Statehouse lawn
Peter Hirschfeld
/
VPR
GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Bellows, Thayer, and Frank Sexton, from left, held a press conference in June to denounce proposed gun laws.

Kathy Tarrant is a Republican candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives from Waterbury.

Earlier this month, she joined Thayer and several other Republican candidates at a press conference outside the Statehouse. They were there to denounce proposed gun control legislation after the mass shootings in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, Texas.

Those gun bills, Tarrant said, were just a symptom of a far more insidious problem.

“This time around we’re engineered from afar by people who don’t give a hoot about Vermonters,” Tarrant said. “Certain individuals in government seem intent on convincing as many as possible that an event really did happen in this way and for that reason in hopes of dampening our reasoning capabilities.”

Tarrant and at least two other candidates said the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde were engineered by anti-American actors that have infiltrated the media, academia and government institutions, as part of a larger effort to usurp individual freedom and install a totalitarian government.

“There are attacks on critical race theory, even on transgender literature and LGBT literature as somehow connected to Marxism."
Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University

“It’s the elites. The elites are orchestrating this — they’re throwing money at people and they’re getting desperate because they’re losing,” Tarrant said. “That’s my firm opinion.”

Thayer himself doesn’t subscribe to false-flag conspiracies — for which there is zero evidence — for mass shootings.

“No, I don’t believe in that,” he told Vermont Public. “I don’t believe that at all.”

More than 112,000 Vermonters voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. It's tough to pin down exactly how many of them subscribe to the Red Scare politics Thayer's adopted.

But there are some informed guesses.

"They probably represent maybe 5%, 5 to 10% of Vermonters,” Beck said.

Beck's come under fire from supporters of the former president, including those who believe in Trump's false claims of widespread election fraud.

"I mean they're so far outside the political mainstream that they're — I mean they're so far outside the dialogue,” he said.

Their numbers are large enough, however, to sustain an ideological bloc within the Vermont GOP.

Last year, Thayer organized a series of town hall meetings across the state to galvanize opposition to what he calls critical race theory.

The events, like one in St. Albans last July, regularly drew more than 100 people to hear Thayer and other anti-CRT advocates speak.

“To me CRT is not about race,” Thayer said to a crowd in St. Albans. “It is about Marxism, tearing down our Constitution, tearing down our systems, tearing down our history, our culture, our people.”

It's a message that’s become gospel for the Vermonters that share Thayer’s political views, including former Essex Rep. Linda Kirker, who spoke at the CRT event.

“Before Lenin, Castro, Hitler and other dictators destroyed their own countries,” Kirker said. “They used school indoctrination and propaganda on the school children to turn them against their parents and neighbors.”

Critical race theory, which educators say is not being taught in K-12 schools in Vermont, is a complex scholarly framework that says racism has become enmeshed with laws and institutions in the United States.

Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University and an expert in social movements in America, said this sort of anti-Marxist ideology is taking hold across America.

“There are attacks on critical race theory, even on transgender literature and LGBT literature as somehow connected to Marxism,” Kazin said. “It’s sort of a general worldview that conservatives more and more embrace, which allows them to marginalize people to the left.”

Kazin said this worldview predates Donald Trump by more than a century.

But he said Trump has been able to use the Marxist narrative to great political effect.

“Donald Trump reaped the benefits, I think, of a move to the right rhetorically — of a rhetorical strategy of saying that everyone on the left, almost everyone in the Democratic Party is dangerous to America, if not treasonous,” he said.

Adherents of that worldview in Vermont haven’t enjoyed the same electoral success as their counterparts in more conservative states.

But that’s something they hope to change, starting this November.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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