Trump reference in VTGOP email exposes rift

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Trying to fit supporters of Gov. Phil Scott and President Donald Trump in the same tent is proving treacherous for Vermont's Republican Party.

The governor is enjoying a 65 percent approval rating, according to the latest Morning Consult poll, while one of the most recent indicators of support for Trump — a 2017 Gallup poll — puts his approval rating in the state at 26 percent, the lowest in the nation.

Yet the state's Republican Party is betting their base is on board with Trump's messaging, repackaged for Vermont. A mailer sent to party members this week asked for them to help "Make Vermont Great Again."

"Though the days of the traditional, conservative Vermont we all grew up in may seem gone, it does NOT mean it is gone for good," the email said.

"If we are ever going to return Vermont back to its former glory, we need to band together to toss out every last liberal elitist politician in Montpelier," said the email, signed by Team VTGOP.

A few Republican politicians and organizers quickly took to social media to disavow the message, including Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who said it did not reflect her values, policies or reasons for being part of the party.

She said in an interview that the message was "abusive and angry" and only served to further divide the party. "Vermont Republicanism for generations has been a big tent," she said. "The tent seems to be getting smaller."

Scheuermann was among those who saw the message of the mailer, which was sent out the same day that Scott signed controversial gun legislation, as a rebuke of the governor, who has found himself aligned with liberal colleagues this year on both the gun legislation and marijuana legalization.

Chet Greenwood, chair of the Orleans County Republican Party and "chair of chairs" for the state party, said he was not involved in drafting the mailer, but he saw it very differently, as a message of Republican unity during a divisive time.

"I don't think it was a shot at Phil Scott at all. The message was let's get together," he said. "Let's get past this and get back to work. Let's get this gun thing behind us."

Greenwood drafted a resolution last month calling for Scott to veto S.55, a bill that includes a hot-button ban on high-capacity magazines and expanded background checks. He said the resolution was signed by 12 of the state's 14 GOP county chairs and hand-delivered to the governor, who did not respond before signing the bill.

Scott's team is not involved in internal party planning these days, Greenwood said, and in a departure from previous Republican administrations the governor has chosen not to fill a seat on the party's executive committee.

While Scott has been a vocal critic of Trump, state GOP chair Deborah Billado has been a vocal supporter. Trump got a boost when Billado beat out Scott's pick for party chair, Mike Donohue, in November last year.

Still, Greenwood questioned the wisdom of playing up the party's affiliation with Trump in its fundraising literature. "The state's turning into moderate Republicans," he said. "I might have done something a little different."

Billado did not respond to a request for comment made through the party's vice chair, Brady Toensing. Toensing, whose parents were almost hired for Trump's legal team earlier this year, said he didn't understand why people were upset about the fundraising message.

"What's the big deal?" he said in an email. "It's a fundraising piece. Some people are intentionally triggering themselves so they can engage in moral preening."

A spokesperson for Scott did not respond to emailed questions about the mailer.

Mike Smith, who served as secretary of administration for former Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, said fundraising pitches are often "a bit over the top, no matter what political party." But he said the apparent strategy behind the latest GOP missive is "fraught with danger."

Any statewide candidate in Vermont needs the support of independents, Smith said, especially Republicans. "And of course politics is all about winning elections," he added. "Tying your message (make Vermont great again) to his (make America great again) is unlikely to help in gaining the support of independents."

A more effective strategy would be sticking to a strong economic message that appeals to conservatives and independents alike, which is what both Douglas and Scott have tried to do, he said.

For some in the party, the two messages are not mutually exclusive. Carol Dupont, the party's chair in Bennington County, said that Trump to her represented economic revival. She said she hopes his pro-business policies would take hold in Vermont as the party embraced his message.

Dupont said a number of big businesses in the area — notably an IBM plant and the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant — had moved out. "It seems like we're always losing stuff, and not gaining anything," she said.

"He is a breath of fresh air," Dupont said of Trump, adding that he had followed through on campaign promises like deregulation. "He did what he said he was going to do, and that's not what people in Vermont are dealing with looking at their governor."

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