In this corner: six-term state Sen. Joe Benning, former Senate Minority Leader and the only Republican to chair a Senate committee.
In that corner: Gregory Thayer, 2020 election truther, organizer of the CovidCruiser, anti-critical race theory agitator and head of Vermonters for Vermont, an all-purpose far-right Society for the Airing of Grievances.
These are the two Republicans running for lieutenant governor. It ought to be an easy choice. Prominent lawmaker, articulate, thoughtful conservative versus fringey zealot. And maybe it will be; I make Benning the clear favorite.
But it might not be, and therein lies the problem with today’s VTGOP. There are a lot of Gregory Thayers in the party ranks. Party chair Paul Dame is likely to take a cautiously neutral position because he can’t afford to inflame the far right, even though Benning is clearly the better choice. He’s the only one who’d bring credibility to the ticket, and he’s earned his party’s support through his years of service.
But we’re talking about a VTGOP that’s turned its back on Gov. Phil Scott, the only Republican who’s won a statewide election since 2008. And a VTGOP whose base probably sees Benning as a turncoat.
So yeah, this will be a good test for the party. Will the primary victor be a plausible figure with statewide credibility or a two-bit self-promoting provocateur?
This shouldn’t even be a question. If Benning doesn’t win in a rout, it’s a sign of how far the VTGOP has fallen since the days of George Aiken, Bob Stafford, Jim Jeffords and Dick Snelling. Thayer’s vote percentage will tell us exactly how delusional and uncompetitive the party has become.
Benning was labeled by VTDigger as a “moderate Republican,” which is another sign of how far the party has strayed. Joe Benning is smart. He thinks for himself. He occasionally defies expectations. But he is definitely conservative.
I’ll be voting in the Democratic primary, but I wish him well. I hope he wins the nomination. The VTGOP needs people like him on its statewide ticket if they want to be taken seriously. And our politics are healthier when there are at least two competitive parties.
Now, I wouldn’t expect Benning to win in November. Don Turner tried this in 2018 and got walloped by David Zuckerman, despite the (apparently very short) coattails of Phil Scott. But Thayer would be an embarrassment. Imagine him ranting on the debate stage as the Republican choice to be A Heartbeat Away. Not a good look.
Full credit to the Senator for taking on this challenge. Being a statewide candidate requires total commitment and all the energy you can muster. Doing all of that when (a) you’ll suffer the indignity of sharing a stage with Gregory Thayer and (b) if you win the nomination, you’ll be a decided underdog in the general election. Whatever his electoral fate, Benning is doing a great service for his party and the state.