State Sen. John Rodgers is on track for a potential upset in the Democratic primary race for governor, but challenges remain for Republicans and independents who wish to cross party lines to give him their pro-gun vote.
On the Democratic ticket, four candidates for governor appear on the primary ballot: James Ehlers, of Winooski, Brenda Siegel, of Newfane, Ethan Sonneborn, of Bristol, and Christine Hallquist, of Hyde Park.
Rodgers, a write-in candidate whose name does not appear on the ballot, is nevertheless gaining momentum quietly out of view.
One of the few Blue Dog Democrats left in the state, the Essex-Orleans senator has been an outspoken critic of gun control, industrial-scale wind turbines and overregulation of rural businesses. Rodgers’ leadership on hot-button issues at the Statehouse has long appealed to Democrats and Republicans alike.
The numbers may be on his side.
On Monday, Secretary of State Jim Condos said “there has been some indication of lower voter turn-out.” If true, Rodgers could leap-frog to victory should the registered candidates split the vote four ways while the state’s pro-gun voters pick Rodgers as a write-in.
Since April, when Republican Gov. Phil Scott imposed a slew of gun restrictions on law-abiding Vermonters, sportsmen’s groups, hunters and other gun owners have been plotting to defeat the incumbent governor.
However, the state is dominated by Democratic voters, and Republican primary challenger Keith Stern, of Springfield, has delivered a lackluster performance in head-to-head debates with the governor. That leaves Rodgers as the pro-gun candidate with perhaps the strongest chance of winning in November.
But he has to win the primary first, and Republicans must cross party lines on Primary Day to help give him a victory.
Vermont is an “open-primary” state, which means anyone from any political affiliation can grab a ballot for any party and cast votes. But there’s a caveat: voters may choose only one party’s ballot for the primaries. That’s a challenge for conservative Second Amendment supporters who may be tempted to grab a Democratic ballot and write in Rodgers on Aug. 14.
“That’s a confusing mess,” Bob DePino, vice president of Gun Owners of Vermont, told True North in an interview.
DePino said it’s a tricky situation because any non-Democrat taking a Democratic ballot to vote for Rodgers surrenders the option to vote for their own party’s candidates during the primaries — though they may switch back to their own party candidates in the general election.
Will Senning, Vermont’s director of elections, confirmed the situation in an interview with True North.
“In the August primary, the way the law reads is voters are given all three ballots and you choose one of the three ballots to vote, and you can only vote in one of the party primaries,” he said.
He said a voter can write in a candidate regardless of if a race is contested or not, and regardless of if the candidate is from the ticket’s party. However, a write-in vote will count towards nomination for the party associated with the ballot.
“If you write in John Rodgers for the Republican ballot, that would be a vote for John Rodgers for the Republican nomination,” Senning said. “It is not added to the write-in votes that John Rodgers gets on the Democratic ballot, which are votes to nominate him for the Democratic nomination.”
Vermont’s open primary system does not involve party registration. Senning said some states require party registration yet still allow people to choose any ballot. But states that require party registration and only allow voting on a ballot for the registered party are known as “closed primary” states.
DePino said if pro-gun Republicans and independents choose the Democrat ticket and vote for Rodgers, they may also use the opportunity to influence other Democratic races.
“You could not only vote for [Rodgers], but you can vote against [anti-gun Sen. Philip] Baruth, and other things that can be done if you take the Democratic ticket in the primary,” he said.
For example, DePino said he has contacted one of Baruth’s challengers, Steve May, of Richmond. While May is not considered a pro-gun candidate, DePino says he might be a better option than Baruth, who received a “rabidly anti-gun” rating from Gun Owners of Vermont.
“He actually was brave enough to fill out our questionnaire. So he’s scored kind of poorly, but better than Phil Baruth,” DePino said. “In that particular case, you would vote for somebody better than Phil because we know what we’re gonna get if we get Phil Baruth.”
With less than two weeks until the election, pro-Second Amendment Republicans and independents must decide if they want to attempt to give Rodgers a victory in the Democratic primary or stick with their own party ballots and races.
“If we had enough people on both sides, we could have enough people vote John Rodgers in and have enough [Republicans] vote against Phil,” he said. “Then you have John Rodgers and Keith Stern in November, and we win either way.”
DePino said Rodgers is “behind the eight ball” for not being a registered candidate. Rodgers told True North that his family’s business commitments prevent him from running a conventional campaign.
For other races on the Democratic ticket, DePino is advising fellow gun owners to follow one simple policy: “If [a candidate] voted for gun control, we vote you out — that’s how it works. Remember the old saying that gun control used to be the third rail of Vermont politics? Well, it’s time to make it the third rail of Vermont politics again.”