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Prominent Vermont Republicans Distance Themselves From Donald Trump

House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) is seeking the office of Lieutenant Governor in Vermont's Nov. 6 general election.
Angela Evancie
VPR file
As recently as last week, House Minority Leader Don Turner was reaffirming his support for Donald Trump. Now, Turner says, he's revoking his support for the candidate.

Some prominent Vermont Republicans are seeking to distance themselves from their party’s presidential nominee after seeing footage of Donald Trump speaking in vulgar and predatory terms about women.

House Minority Leader Don Turner has never been a big fan of Trump. But as recently as last week, he was reaffirming his support for the presidential candidate. 

That calculus changed for Turner on Friday, when the Washington Post published a three-minute video of Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals, among other things. Now, Turner says, he’s revoking his support for the candidate. 

“By me saying publicly that I’m going to vote for him, it’s like I’m condoning that,” Turner says. “And I can’t condone that type of behavior.”

The leaked footage has prompted a flood of high-profile Trump defections nationwide, and Vermont Republicans are among those hopping off the bandwagon. Republican Scott Milne is hoping to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy. Milne had until this weekend said he was still undecided about whether he would vote for Donald Trump. 

He says the release of the video helped seal his decision. 

“Yeah, I think, you know, straw that broke the camel’s back, nail in the coffin,” says Milne, who issued a statement Sunday saying “Trump’s candidacy is irreconcilable” with the goals of his campaign.

"I should've paid more attention. I take full responsibility for that. I apologize for that." - House Minority Leader Don Turner

Brendan Nyhan, a professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, says the raft of Republican officeholders withdrawing support for Trump – some have even called on him to drop out of the race – bode poorly for the Republican candidate’s chances in November.

“Early indications suggest that Trump is performing worse than any presidential candidate from a major party in recent memory,” Nyhan says.

Nyhan says some of Trump’s comments during Sunday’s debate could exacerbate the damage. Trump indicated during the 90-minute exchange that if elected, he’d see to it that Hillary Clinton would go to prison.

“The issue that last night’s debate highlighted is Trump’s lack of respect for the rule of law, which is a fundamental concern to every political scientist like myself, who studies democracy and the conditions under which it thrives or withers,” Nyhan says.

Nyhan says the world has seen in other countries what happens when victorious candidates incarcerate their former political foes.

“It’s an existential threat to democracy itself, that level of politicizing criminal justice in that way,” Nyhan says. “That issue threatens to further damage his campaign.”

"If they cut Trump loose, his supporters ... [may] stay home. If they back Trump they may alienate the moderate and persuadable voters." - Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth political science professor

Nyhan, however, says there’s no easy way for Republican candidates to neutralize the impact of Trump’s incendiary rhetoric on their own races. And he says they face a difficult political dilemma.

“If they cut Trump loose, his supporters will be angry at them. They may antagonize their base and even cause them to stay home,” Nyhan says. “If they back Trump they may alienate the moderate and persuadable voters whom they need to win the general election.”

House Minority Leader Don Turner says he isn’t urging his fellow Republicans to vote against Trump, and he says revocation of his support for the candidate isn’t an endorsement of Clinton. But Turner says he fears the ripple effect of Trump’s candidacy on down-ticket races in Vermont. 

“And I’m disappointed that we’re in a position where our presidential nominee may have a negative impact on all the work that I and many others have put forth to bring balance to Montpelier,” Turner says.

Milne says he hopes to retain support from Republican voters in Vermont who believe that Trump is the best candidate.

“I thought it was time to speak out on it,” Milne says. “Some people are not happy and think that Trump will be a great president, and I respect those people.”

The executive director of the Vermont Republican Party referred inquiries about defections from Trump to GOP Chairman David Sunderland, who didn’t immediately respond to a message left Monday.

But not all Vermont Republicans are abandoning their party’s standard bearer. Assistant House Minority Leader Brian Savage is still making up his mind. Savage posted a Facebook message Saturday indicating he was done with Trump. 

“I’m a father of a daughter and also have two little granddaughters,” Savage says.

Savage says he wrote the post after reading Trump’s comments about women in the leaked video. But the Swanton Republican says he’s since deleted the post, and “tempered his views.” 

“Was it the right thing to say? Is it the right thing to say amongst people? No,” Savage says.

But, he says he agrees with Trump’s characterization of the exchange as ill-conceived locker-room banter.

“We’ve probably said similar things in our lifetime, you and I,” Savage says. “It’s just that the microphone probably wasn’t on.”

After watching Sunday’s debate, Savage says he’s realized how important it is that Clinton be defeated. He says the video is disturbing, to be sure.

“But we cannot lose sight of this becoming a distraction,” Savage says.

Savage says he’ll decide once and for all whether to vote for Trump after the third and final presidential debate later this month.

Turner, meanwhile, says he regrets not having withdrawn his support for Trump sooner than he did. Turner says he didn’t listen closely enough to comments Trump has previously made about people of color, or people with disabilities. 

“I don’t stand for this type of behavior towards women, or minorities or disabled people or anything,” Turner says. “I should’ve paid more attention. I take full responsibility for that. I apologize for that.”

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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