Gun activists put up `hurdle' to Scott's re-election

Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, speaks with Sen. John Campbell in the Statehouse cafeteria Tuesday.

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In recent weeks, Ed Cutler has registered about 40 voters for the upcoming primary.

He is working to galvanize members of his organization, Gun Owners of Vermont, to defeat Republican Gov. Phil Scott in the primary election Aug. 14 because of his enactment of new firearms restrictions in April. The group also wants to vote out lawmakers who championed gun control measures.

Since February, the group has nearly tripled in size to 7,000 members — rapid growth that followed lawmakers' decision to put a sweeping proposal to restrict the state's gun laws on the table, Cutler said.

Now that the new gun restrictions have become law, he says thousands of gun owners will turn out to defeat Scott and targeted lawmakers.

"People are really heated up and I can't blame them. There's so many things wrong with that bill," Cutler said, referring to the centerpiece of last session's gun legislation, S.55.

The legislation Scott signed in April expanded background checks to private sales, raised the age to purchase a firearm to 21, banned bump stocks and limited magazine size for handguns and rifles.

In a sleepy, off-year primary for which dismal turnout is expected, gun rights advocates stand out as a small group of energized voters. Many of them feel spurned by Scott, who they believe broke a promise he delivered on the campaign trail in 2016: a pledge to fight against efforts to change state gun statutes. Until April, Vermont had among the least restrictive laws in the country.

While political experts say it's unlikely gun activists will muster the votes to oust the governor, their mobilization could put on full display the extent to which he has lost touch with a segment of the base that carried him to political victory two years ago.

In an interview Monday, Scott acknowledged he was concerned about opposition from gun rights advocates, particularly in an election where he anticipates low turnout.

"They're energized because they're angry," he said. "That's why it's important that we educate people to the fact that there is a primary, we have a challenger and that I need their help."

On the Republican side, Scott's only challenger Keith Stern, a grocer from Springfield with no political experience, has blasted the incumbent governor for his pivot on gun control and criticized him for his views as a moderate Republican.

Another pro-gun politician, Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, is running as a write-in candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, buoyed by supporters who oppose Scott's embrace of the gun control measures.

Scott has stood by his decision: a change of heart he says he experienced after law enforcement reported they had thwarted a mass shooting at a high school in Fair Haven, just days after the deadly February shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida.

"I know that I disappointed a lot of people. I regret disappointing people, but at the same time I had to look myself in the mirror," Scott said in a debate with Stern last month. "If that ever happened in Vermont I'm not sure I could say at the time that we had done all we could."

A Morning Consult poll from last month shows that among Republicans and independents Scott's approval rating dropped dramatically after he signed the gun laws.

Political analysts who conducted the poll pinned the plummet on Scott's decision on guns. His approval rating is highest among Democrats.

Scott said Monday that channeling the support of Democrats and independents in Tuesday's primary will likely be challenging, because voting for him would involve casting a ballot in the GOP primary.

"There's a lot of independents and maybe even a few conservative Democrats that are supporting me, but don't necessarily want to turn out for a primary where they have to pull a Republican ballot," he said.

Richard Clark, a professor of political science at Castleton University, said that while Scott's stance on guns will help him pick up votes in the general election, it makes him more vulnerable in the primary.

A mobilized block of Republican voters who oppose him on the issue, could wield large influence in the context of low overall turnout.

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"When we're looking at small numbers, large movements can make a difference," he said.

Clark said he doesn't believe Scott will lose the primary on Tuesday, but noted that it's the largest obstacle he faces in his re-election bid.

"We need to recognize that his primary is his biggest hurdle If he's going to stumble this is going to be where it is," Clark said. "I still find it unlikely, but if I am running the Scott campaign I'm more concerned about the primary than the general election."

Brittney Wilson, Scott's campaign manager said that to spur turnout in the Republican primary, the campaign is relying on data it has collected to target Vermonters who are known Scott supporters and reminding them to vote on Tuesday.

"We're not taking anything for granted and certainly working harder than ever to make sure our folks turn out in this primary," Wilson said. "But I do think at the end of the day we'll be successful, and our efforts to target our supporters will prove to be a smart move."

Gun Owners of Vermont is encouraging its members to vote for Stern if they're casting a Republican ballot, or Rodgers, if they're voting for Democrats, Cutler said.

"There'll be a pretty big turnout in the gun people," he said. "I dearly hope and I'm really hoping this that Phil loses to Stern and Rodgers gets the ballot. I would love to see both of those guys running for governor."

Bill Moore, firearm policy analyst at the Vermont Traditions Coalition, an organization that advocates for gun rights, said people who vote in primaries are typically drawn by multiple issues.

"I hope [Cutler is] right and a ton of people turn out," Moore said. "I don't doubt that there'll be a turnout that's generated at least in part by the gun issue. Whether it'll tip the numbers, I don't think it's fair to ask."

Cutler acknowledged that encouraging members to cast ballots for either candidate could fracture the vote against Scott, but he said endorsing one pro-gun candidate over another could harm his organization's credibility.

Scott's odds in the primary would be worse off if he was facing a stronger Republican challenger, according to Brady Toensing the Vice Chair of the Vermont Republican Party.

Along with having no experience holding public office, a VPR-Vermont PBS poll from last month shows only 32 percent of Republicans know who Stern is.

If Stern is going to stand a chance against Scott, he has to work quickly to increase his familiarity among Vermonters in the coming days, said Matthew Dickinson a political scientist at Middlebury College.

"He has six days to sort of gain that name recognition and I think he's really got to get people to mobilize That's where the gun activists can come into play," he said. "Are they going to mobilize in enough numbers? I don't think so."

Toensing, who has openly criticized Scott, says the incumbent governor not only faces the ire of firearms advocates, but also anger from "disheartened Republicans" who are unsettled by his laxer views on immigration, decision to permit recreational marijuana legalization and signature on a bill that creates a statewide a health insurance mandate.

While he will more than likely win the primary, it won't be with overwhelming support, Toensing said.

"I think he's going to be OK, but I think the numbers are going to look really, really bad," Toensing said. "They've abandoned their base and they're openly seeking to cultivate Democratic support for their administration."

In an unusual move, the Republican Governors Association has dumped $225,000 into independent spending on ads to support Scott's primary campaign through a political action committee, A Stronger Vermont. Last election cycle the RGA came in after the primary.