This commentary is by Sen. Joe Benning, who represents the Caledonia-Orange District in the Vermont Senate.
In the early 1990s I joined the Vermont Republican Party. I did so because the VTGOP recognized five core principles: a free market economy, a local and efficient government that kept taxes within reason, an educational system that enabled our graduates to compete in a global marketplace, individual liberty, and personal responsibility. Those five core principles were wrapped together by a glue that bound us together as a society: the Vermont Constitution. Coupled with Vermont’s proud history of rugged individualism, these things defined our party.
There was no application process when I joined. There was no litmus test. I wasn’t asked whether I followed a particular religion or even if I was religious. I wasn’t asked whether I was pro-life or pro-choice. It was never demanded of me that I swear allegiance to any particular candidate or to every plank in the party’s platform. Nobody in their right mind would have insisted upon blind allegiance to an idealogue. Civility, integrity and an assumption that our election process was trustworthy were orders of the day.
The only reason a political party organization exists is to elect candidates. The VTGOP’s sole objective is supposed to be targeted at recruiting and electing those who can get elected. Even George Aiken, perhaps the most frugal VTGOP member, recognized one of government’s chief responsibilities is to help those in need. I’ve now participated in nine elections, the last being my first statewide. Successful in six and unsuccessful in three, I flatter myself in thinking I understand what it takes to get elected.
So where is the VTGOP today? A minor contingent still firmly believes the January 6th assault on the nation’s capitol was a patriotic event. A few display large flags on their homes and vehicles that say “F**CK Biden.” The loudest voices on social media (thankfully still few in number) spew vitriol and hatred against the highest vote recipients in the VTGOP and those who’ve spent the most time trying to hold the party together. They continue a narrative designed to undermine faith in our electoral process, label those legitimately in need as leeches on society, and adhere to every Q-anon conspiracy imaginable as if it is established fact.
Like it or not, that is an image problem we VTGOP candidates deal with on the campaign trail. Sure, everybody has a right to free speech; but these immature, sometimes dangerous and often bullying techniques will never attract electable candidates or Vermont voters to the VTGOP. Nobody marching to this drumbeat has a chance of ever getting elected in Vermont.
Some will argue Donald Trump’s vote tally in the 2020 election (112,704) is something to build upon. Mathematically that is not possible. Vermont’s voting demographic has twice soundly rejected his candidacy, giving Biden 242,820 votes in that same election. Vermonters want civility, integrity and trust in the people they vote for. The vast majority long ago decided Trump does not provide those things. No argument will change that. If the VTGOP is to survive and thrive, we’d best be moving on.
VTGOP leaders must recognize the largest voting block in Vermont is not Republicans or Democrats or Progressives. It is those who consider themselves independents. If VTGOP leaders move to rigid right-wing idealogues for comfort, we lose that block. The VTGOP course must remain center-right. As idealogues in the Democrat/Progressive supermajority drive policy that runs counter to Vermont traditions and fiscal capacity, independents will be alienated. This provides an opportunity for VTGOP candidates who stay true to, and can articulate, our five core principles and the glue that binds them together.