Republican candidates for lieutenant governor weighed in on a series of perennial campaign issues during a debate on Tuesday.
They outlined approaches for combating Vermont's demographic crisis, largely emphasizing job creation and deregulation. They weighed in on whether they support a carbon tax — no — and explained how the state would be better off if they were elected.
But one of the more illuminating points during Tuesday's event — the first of four statewide primary election debates hosted by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS over the next eight days — came when the five hopefuls were offered a chance to ask one of the other candidates a question.
What followed was a series of odd exchanges that featured a surprising number of softballs and few of the pointed questions that voters have come to expect in political debates.
In the middle of it all was Scott Milne, the race's most high-profile candidate, best known for a 2014 gubernatorial bid in which he came just 2,500 votes shy of defeating then-governor Peter Shumlin.
Meg Hansen of Manchester, the owner of a communications firm, kicked off the segment by grilling Milne about comments he has made on the topic of mail-in voting.
"You've said that opposing mass mail-in voting is equal to voter suppression and quote, 'Those who oppose it deserve to lose elections,'" Hansen said. "Republicans are concerned about protecting election integrity. How can you represent us when you don't even understand our legitimate concerns?"
"Incidentally, I believe that the more Vermonters that vote in this election, the more I'll win by in November," Milne quipped in response, before going on to say that he has concerns with the recently passed Vermont law that aims to make voting safer during the pandemic by sending active voters a ballot in the mail for the November general election.
"It's going to lead to a lot of problems and undermine confidence in voting," Milne said. "But we need to work toward a system that enables people to securely vote, and to make it easier for people to vote."
The next question came from Dwayne Tucker of Barre, a self-employed contractor who is also running for a Washington County state Senate seat.
Tucker also chose Milne. But despite warning Milne that he would likely "be in the hot seat" during the debate, Tucker’s question had little sizzle.
"You're a fairly well-known member of the community in Vermont. You're known as a pretty successful businessman,” Tucker said. “What are three primary issues you feel are priorities in addressing and how do you propose dealing with them?”
Milne, a Pomfret resident, later said he hoped Tucker would go on to win his senatorial election and asked how he, as the next lieutenant governor, could help achieve Tucker's legislative priorities. Tucker took it in stride.
"That's a fantastic question," he said. "My heart is really focused on the Washington County Senate seat. I believe that Vermont needs to address the industry standpoint in central Vermont, and I feel that I can selectively focus on my town in my county and represent it better from a farming and agricultural standpoint."
When Hansen's second turn came up, she again sought to question the sincerity of Milne's Republicanism. She said while Milne has used his business background to claim he would be well-served to help the state's economy recover from COVID-19, he has also aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the past.
Why then, she asked, should GOP voters trust him to enact policies they agree with, when he's supported someone “whose economic views and policies are the polar opposite — the antithesis — of anybody who would be voting in the Republican primary?"
Milne countered that he has supported Sanders only on some issues, such as the senator's distaste of international trade deals — a position he shares with President Donald Trump. "The more locally decisions can be made, the better the decisions are," Milne said. "We need to be working with facts and doing what's practical, not pushing a political agenda."
This being a presidential election year, however, many voters will hit the polls tuned in to the national scene. Given that the state GOP's most popular candidate, Gov. Phil Scott, is a well-known Trump critic, VPR moderator Bob Kinzel asked the candidates whether they share the governor's perspective.
Despite Trump's plunging popularity due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, three of the five candidates — Hansen, Tucker and Dana Colson Jr., the owner of a welding supply company — said they fully support the president.
Hansen touted Trump's pre-pandemic success in decreasing unemployment among women and minority groups. “Any administration that increases access to work and improves our quality of life should have our 100 percent support,” she said.
Tucker said that unlike the last few presidents, who ran the country "as if it were a business up for liquidation," Trump actually cares about the working class.
"To boot, he's a successful businessman," Tucker said. "I think he truly does have the American citizen in mind. He is a fighter for their rights. From an economic standpoint, health care — I truly believe he's got our primary interests at heart."
Colson said he supports the president because he's "good for the economy." And while he conceded that he has to "cringe at some of Trump's tweets," he said, "[you have to] take what you can get."
"I think he'll do a good job in 2020 and beyond," Colson said.
Jim Hogue of Calais, an actor and historian who runs his own small farm, said he did not support Trump in the 2016 election and remains on the lookout for an alternative this time around. But he said he has been "amused and very much impressed" by how Trump has managed to survive the "attacks of the media, of the DNC" about the "Russia hoax."
"He came out of them with his head above water,” Hogue said, adding that he has been impressed with Trump’s efforts to encourage medical professionals to “look into other methods of solving the COVID-19 problem.”
Milne, who was by far the most critical of the commander in chief, said he wishes Trump had kept his promise to "act more presidential." At the same time, Milne said he does not see former vice president Joe Biden as "being up for the job."
That’s why Milne said he sought to find his pick for the White House locally. "I look around Vermont, or look around for somebody who would be an inspiring president, has the right temperament and intellect; I think of our former governor Jim Douglas," Milne said.
"I'm writing in Jim Douglas' name for president," he added.
The primary election will be held on August 11, though approximately 90,000 Vermonters have already requested absentee ballots.