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Anti-Trump Republicans in Vermont recalibrate after Haley drops out of race

Two people hugging on a stage in front of a giant 'Nikki Haley' sign
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Gov. Phil Scott embraced Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley at a rally in South Burlington last week. Haley won the Republican primary in Vermont last Tuesday, but dropped out of the race the following day.

Moderate Republicans in Vermont are pondering their next move after falling short in their effort to stop Donald Trump from become their party’s presidential nominee.

Nikki Haley’s supporters in Vermont pulled off what her backers in no other state could do last week — a victory in the Republican presidential primary.

They didn’t have long to savor the win. Fewer than 24 hours after the polls closed in Vermont, Haley announced that she was suspending her campaign. And that’s left anti-Trump Republicans pondering their next move.

“There certainly are a lot of people who have nowhere to vote now."
Mary Evslin, co-chair of Nikki Haley's Vermont leadership team

“I’m really not sure where that goes,” said Ashley Bartley, co-chair of Haley’s leadership team in Vermont. “And I am personally very concerned about what a Donald Trump presidency would look like again.”

Bartley got her first call from the Haley campaign back in November, inquiring about a potential political operation in Vermont.

“The Haley team and I sat down. They said, 'This is what we’re looking to do — we’re looking to work on an endorsement and putting together a leadership team, can you help us?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Bartley said.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont becomes Nikki Haley's first state Republican presidential primary victory

Bartley is a Republican lawmaker from Fairfax with a history of working for presidential candidates who are not Donald Trump. She worked for John Kasich’s campaign in 2016. And she was eager to play a role for Haley in Vermont.

“What they were doing is they were going to states and really focusing on states with an open primary,” she said.

The Haley team funneled considerable resources into the state. In the months leading up to the primary, volunteer supporters were using the campaign’s I-360 smartphone app and other outreach tools to connect with likely Haley voters.

Man in cameo jacket wearing a hat holds a sign and salutes.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Brandon resident Wyatt Waterman, holding a homemade Nikki Haley sign, said his vote for Haley in Tuesday’s primary was a vote against Donald Trump.

“Front Porch Forum was our best friend, which is something that’s just so different in Vermont than a lot of other states,” Bartley said.

They also got the big endorsement they were looking for, from Phil Scott, the most popular governor in the U.S. Scott also appeared alongside Haley at a campaign event in South Burlington two days before the primary.

And it worked. Haley defeated Trump by four percentage points here — and then promptly dropped out of the race.

For Vermont Republicans such as Mary Evslin, it’s unclear how they’ll redirect the time and energy they’d been pouring into the one candidate they believed could stop Trump.

“There certainly are a lot of people who have nowhere to vote now,” said Evslin, also a co-chair of Haley’s Vermont leadership team.

Evslin said Haley represented a long-overdue new chapter in American politics. She said she could comfortably cast a vote for Biden in November.

“I think he’s a kind, good, decent human being,” she said. “I do not feel that way about Trump.”

Vermont's governor, at a podium, in a striped tie and dark blazer
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Gov. Phil Scott says the first thing Vermonters can do to avoid another Trump presidency is, 'Don't vote for Donald Trump.'

But she said the country needs something that neither of the two major party nominees offer.

“It’s time to pass the banner to a younger generation … so I don’t see where our choice is,” Evslin said. “But there’s a whole big huge gap of people who will be looking for an answer, I think.”

Joe Benning, a former Republican state senator and the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2022, said he joined Haley’s leadership team in Vermont because of her platform. But he said he was also compelled to support her because of who she was up against.

“I looked at the frontrunner, and I’m hearing the same toxic, chaos conspiracy theories that have divided our party horribly,” he said.

As for next steps, Benning said he’s taking his cue from the former South Carolina governor.

“I completely agree with her that the burden is on Donald Trump to win people like me and to unite the Republican Party,” he said. “I have no idea whether he’s capable of doing that.”

If Trump can’t bridge that division, Benning said, then he thinks Republicans are going to have serious problems in November.

“Especially in Vermont,” he said.

Gov. Scott has said he’ll do anything he can to prevent Trump from becoming the next president. Asked last week what he thinks Vermont Republicans should do to avoid that outcome, Scott offered some suggestions.

“Well, don’t vote for Donald Trump, number one,” he said. “Number two, educate your family members. Try to do your research and homework. Hold him accountable for the things he does and says that aren’t accurate.”

Scott said he’ll continue his own “resistance” against Trump whenever the opportunity presents.

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.