- Sean Metcalf
The two women vying to represent Stowe in the Vermont House faced a question right out of the national headlines during an October 3 debate: "With what you know today, would you support Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court?" Incumbent Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) shook her head in exasperation at the query, which a reader had submitted to the event's host, the Stowe Reporter.
Scheuermann, who is running for a seventh term, isn't the only Republican candidate being forced to confront uncomfortable questions about the national party as Election Day approaches.
Though President Donald Trump isn't on the ballot, he is a potential liability for Republicans in Vermont, where he remains deeply unpopular. According to the online polling company Morning Consult, Trump had a 33 percent approval rating in the state last month, down from 43 percent in January 2017.
At the same time, Republicans surely haven't forgotten that 95,369 Vermont voters, 30 percent of those who turned out in 2016, cast ballots for Trump.
Vermont Democratic Party spokesperson Christopher Di Mezzo argued that local candidates have "an obligation to address the president," because voters want to know where their elected officials stand. "Donald Trump is certainly present in [voters'] minds, if not their No. 1 issue," he suggested. He also made the case that "the issues that matter nationwide matter here, too."
Though Trump provokes strong feelings, positive or negative, in many Americans, some of Vermont's top Republican candidates equivocated when asked about the president.
Their responses to a simple question — Do you support President Trump? — were anything but.
"A 'yes' or 'no' is a woefully insufficient answer," said Republican Lawrence Zupan, a Manchester real estate broker who is challenging U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "Questions like that ... have usually been used in order to pigeonhole a person into a particular narrow subset of who he is, or she is, politically, and I resist and resent that tendency," Zupan continued. "Why? Because I'm an independent human being running for office."
Zupan refused to say whether he voted for Trump.
"People say to me, 'Oh, are you a pro-Trumper?' And I tell them, 'No, if I'm anything, I'm a pro-Zupaner."
In 2016, House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton), who is running for lieutenant governor this year, withdrew his support for then-candidate Trump after a leaked recording revealed Trump bragging about grabbing women "by the pussy."
But Turner seemed caught off guard when asked last week whether he planned to vote for the president in 2020. "Um, it's a good question. I don't know. You know, I don't know. I don't really have any comment on what I'm gonna do in two years."
"There are many things I've disagreed with and some things I've supported," Turner said, referring to Trump's tenure. He cited the federal tax cuts as a positive policy change but said he had "grave concern" that the president lacks respect for government institutions.
Rep. Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johns-bury), the Republican candidate for attorney general, was also circumspect. "It's such a loaded description," he said, when asked if he was a Trump supporter. Willhoit said he voted for John Kasich in 2016 but described Trump's tenure as "better than I expected." Willhoit said he didn't know whether he'd vote for Trump in 2020 but did note that "I'm not a never-Trumper."
Republican Anya Tynio, who is seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), didn't respond to an interview request, but she appears to have embraced Trump more readily than some of her fellow Republicans. The Northeast Kingdom newspaper sales rep regularly retweets him and recently told Vermont Public Radio, "I think that President Trump has fulfilled his promise to the American people."
Gov. Phil Scott made it clear in 2015 that he did not support Trump. Since taking office, he has skillfully navigated his relationship with the president, speaking out against him at key moments in a nonconfrontational manner, often citing conservative principles.
When Trump moved to enlist local police to enforce immigration law in January 2017, Scott called it "federal overreach" and worked with Democratic state lawmakers to quickly pass legislation restricting the role that Vermont cops could play in any future crackdown. Though Scott has angered some Trump supporters in his party, the governor's victory in the August primary suggests he hasn't alienated too many.
On September 27, former governor Madeleine Kunin and the majority leaders of the Vermont House and Senate, Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) and Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham), issued a statement exhorting Scott to call for delay in the U.S. Senate's vote on Kavanaugh. It appeared to be a calculated attempt to force the governor to take a stand on a controversial matter far outside his purview.
Scott, who had previously told reporters that senators should "take their time" to investigate, issued a statement three hours later calling for a "thorough, independent and non-partisan FBI investigation into the accusations."
At the Stowe debate, Democratic candidate Marina Meerburg addressed the Kavanaugh question with zest, offering support for Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused the U.S. Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault. Meerburg went on to express indignation at what she called Kavanaugh's "self-entitled outburst" in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
When it was her turn, a considerably less eager Scheuermann said, "So, um, I'm running for the Vermont House." She continued, "I think what is happening in Washington is ugly. It's sad ... It is party politics at its worst."
"You're not answering the question," yelled a man in the audience.
"Somebody said you're not answering the question," Meerburg prodded.
Scheuermann declined to do so, and the moderator moved on.
During an interview several weeks earlier, Scheuermann, a critic of Trump since he launched his presidential campaign, had told Seven Days, "I don't think it's any surprise that ... the Democratic leaders are going to do what they can to connect Republicans in Vermont to President Trump, especially in the districts throughout Vermont that the president lost, which is, you know, a lot." In Stowe, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received 68 percent of the vote to Trump's 19 percent.
"I think it's my job to focus on the local issues," Scheuermann told Seven Days.
Meerburg, a Democratic activist endorsed by Sanders, understands her opponent's reluctance to wade into talk of the Trump administration. "I think if I was Republican, I would be, too," she said. But she doesn't buy the argument that it's irrelevant to their race. "We're not unaffected by this, and that's a big part of why I'm running.
"We like to think that we live in this little idyllic bubble here in Vermont," she continued. "But the fact is, we don't ... And what's coming out of Washington is just a full-on assault."
Arguing that she'd be stronger bulwark against the Trump administration, Meerburg said her opponent "hasn't spoken out for the president, but I haven't heard her speak out a lot against him, frankly."
When Trump surfaces in conversations with voters, Rep. Fred Baser (R-Bristol) has a ready answer. "I say, 'I didn't vote for Donald Trump, and I don't particularly think the fellow is a good guy.'"
"There's a risk in doing that," said Baser, a moderate in a four-way race for two seats. Sometimes the people turn out to be die-hard Trump supporters, but more often, "people appreciate me saying that."
The Vermont Republican Party has plenty of Trump supporters, including state chair Deborah Billado. But according to the VTGOP's executive director, Jack Moulton, the party doesn't plan to play up its affiliation with the president.
Party leaders may have learned from an incident in April when they angered some members, including Turner and Scheuermann, by channeling Trump in an email blast. Several hours before Scott signed a series of controversial gun reforms into law, the party urged Republicans to "Make Vermont Great Again."
That message won't reappear during this election, Moulton said, because "it's not really effective. We have Gov. Scott in office, who's doing a good job."
In Vermont's redder districts, Republicans feel more liberated to weigh in on national politics.
"Kavanaugh is the talk of the town right now," Rep. Brian Smith (R-Derby) said last week. "I think what makes it a little bit irritating to me is, they're basing something on a high school kid at a high school party, that was probably drunk. And I don't know about you, but I'm 67, and I recall a few high school parties where I was probably in the same shape."
"I'm not a fan of Donald Trump's, but the country seems to be moving ahead," Smith said. "He's doing a good enough job that he should have a little more support."
Independent challenger Frank Davis called attention to the fact that his two opponents, Smith and Rep. Lynn Batchelor (R-Derby Line), voted against a Vermont House resolution condemning a Trump administration policy that separated families who entered the U.S. illegally.
"I can't imagine what their justification was," Davis said. He raised the subject during a recent candidate forum in Newport, but "they ignored it as if I hadn't said anything."
Smith had a different recollection, saying that Davis brought up the resolution at the end of the forum, leaving him no time to respond. "He came out with both barrels on that," Smith recalled. "It had been a pretty amicable forum, and then he lambasted Lynn Batchelor and I over it."
Why didn't Smith vote to condemn the policy? "I thought it was waste of time. The resolution was gonna do nothing except alienate the State of Vermont from the White House."
While discussing Trump, the Republican lawmaker mentioned an idea that few of his colleagues are likely to embrace. Noting that the Northeast Kingdom is home to the only Vermont county that Trump won in the general election, Smith said, "I'd love to see Donald Trump come up to the Island Pond airport to have a meeting and say, 'Thank you, Essex County.' That would be wicked cool."Clarification, Oct. 10, 2018: This story was edited after publication to clarify that Gov. Scott had called on U.S. senators to "take their time" to investigate allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh prior to a Democratic demand to do so.