State Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, insists he doesn’t want to run for governor.
This year’s Republican nominee for lieutenant governor has sworn off a bid for higher office in 2024, should he clinch Vermont’s No. 2 post in November. While seeking a position that is often used as a stepping stone to higher office, Benning has made it a pillar of his campaign to promise that he would stay put, even if the governor’s office opens up in 2024.
“I just don’t look at the job as something that I feel like I’ve got to have for my ego purposes,” Benning told VTDigger earlier this month.
But the 11-year state Senate veteran also admits that the state Republican Party’s bench of viable statewide candidates is lacking. And in his first campaign for executive office, the moderate Republican has been eager to draw parallels between himself and Vermont’s popular three-term Republican Gov. Phil Scott — who himself held the LG role before becoming governor.
Benning grew up on the New Jersey shore, but contends that he really became a Vermonter in the sixth grade. That was when he wrote a book report on a fictional biography of the Vermont military hero Ethan Allen, whose politics roughly align with those of modern libertarians.
“It was like, hook, line and sinker,” Benning said. “To me, I became a Vermonter at that moment in time. The idea of independence, the spirit, the whole nine yards was embodied in that book.”
Once Benning enrolled at Lyndon State College (now Northern Vermont University-Lyndon) for his undergraduate degree in 1975, he never left Vermont. He later attended Vermont Law School, where he was mentored by then-state Sen. Graham Newell, a Republican from St. Johnsbury, and got a taste for politics. It wasn’t until 2011, though, that Benning began his own career in the state Senate and rose to become minority leader.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, has endorsed Benning’s Progressive/Democratic opponent, former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, in this year’s race. But Baruth told VTDigger that Benning is his “dear friend,” the two senators having bonded during their first days in the chamber in January 2011.
Baruth said Benning isn’t an “ideologue,” and while he has known Benning long enough to anticipate his votes on any given piece of legislation, he has also seen his colleague change his mind and go against the Republican Party line.
Baruth pointed to S.119 of 2020, a bill regulating when and how police are justified in using deadly force, introduced in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020. The bill passed the Senate Committee on Judiciary, on which both Baruth and Benning serve, by a 3-2 vote that September, with Benning, Baruth and committee chair Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, voting yes.
“I would never scaremonger about Joe Benning and say, ‘Oh, if he wins, the sky’s going to fall,’ because Joe is a very level-headed, reliable guy,” Baruth said. “Vermonters are lucky to have him running on the Republican ticket.”
When it comes to social issues, Benning often falls to the left of the national Republican Party platform. Most visibly, he has been a vocal supporter of Proposal 5, also known as Article 22, the proposed amendment that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the Vermont Constitution. Benning also was a major force behind the Legislature’s legalization of cannabis.
When he was first considering a run for the state Legislature, Benning said, he was courted by both the Democratic and Republican parties. But with a libertarian streak, a hallmark of Benning’s ethos is limited government.
“What it boils down to is, my philosophy of government just wasn’t the same as where the Democratic Party was going,” Benning said.
In this year’s race for lieutenant governor, the question of state government’s size, scope and budget is the major differentiation between himself and Zuckerman, Benning said.
‘Republicans are a very big tent’
Like many of his Democratic counterparts, Benning has crusaded against rising extremism within the Republican Party, including those who publicly doubt the validity or deny the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“We’re all looking for upstanding Republicans to speak out,” Baruth said. “And Phil Scott has not done enough of that. He’s done some. But I think Joe has been more consistently writing op-eds, publishing on Facebook, really calling out people that he thinks are dangerous in his own tent, and he’s just to be commended.”
Benning has long been urging his Republican peers to quit questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election. His tone reached a fever pitch during the Republican primary campaign for lieutenant governor, when Benning faced off with Rutland city’s former GOP chair Gregory Thayer.
Thayer attended the Stop the Steal rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, and raised his profile in local conservative circles by hosting events on hot-button issues such as abortion, gun rights and critical race theory. In the run-up to Vermont’s primary election on Aug. 9, Benning said his race would represent a referendum on the GOP’s future in the state.
“In order for the party to move on, get the public interested in its pillars of strength, we have to get away from the election of 2020. We have to move forward,” Benning told VTDigger in February. “We can’t continue as a divided party. … The trick for Republicans is, how do we unify both camps?”
Though he prevailed in the primary by roughly eight points, the task of unifying those camps has proven tricky for moderates like Benning and Scott, especially as Republicans try to keep a veto-proof majority out of Democrats’ hands in the Legislature.
On Friday, Benning’s campaign hosted a fundraiser in Ferrisburgh, headlined by political allies Scott and former Gov. Jim Douglas. Also in attendance were several more conservative down-ballot Republican candidates.
In a photo taken at the event, Benning and Scott are smiling in a row with Orange County Senate candidate John Klar, who has penned dozens of impassioned op-eds for conservative political sites decrying abortion, critical race theory and gender-affirming treatment for transgender people, and Addison County House candidate Jon Christiano, who told VTDigger he believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Asked about the photo this week, Benning said he did not personally invite those down-ballot candidates, and the campaign event was open to the public. He said he was not familiar with several of them personally or their political opinions, and insisted that a group photo is not akin to an endorsement.
“I don’t think I could name you half of the people who were standing behind me right now, much less ever having had a chat with them about their respective positions on something,” Benning said.
If there were candidates in the photo whose views he had disavowed, Benning said, it was a “coincidence.”
“As you know, the Republicans are a very big tent,” he said.
Asked if moderate GOP stalwarts should cut out from their ranks candidates who they deem too extremist, Benning said they instead “have to work to cutting off that mindset” from far-right candidates.
“I think you just simply say to people, ‘If you are on that wavelength, you’re not going to get elected, and if you want to get elected and you want to have a party that is electable, you have to move off that mindset,’” Benning said. “This is a basic question on our growing pains.”
In a statement responding to the photo’s publication, Zuckerman campaign spokesperson Lisa Gerlach didn’t name Benning, but said politicians need “a common understanding of the facts and realities.”
“There should be no tolerance for denying the facts of climate change, the legitimacy of past election results, and support of the attempted January 6th insurrection,” Gerlach said.
The next Phil Scott?
When it comes to Benning’s political aspirations, he insists he doesn’t have his eyes on higher office. Should he win his lieutenant gubernatorial campaign in November, he has publicly committed to run for the seat again in 2024.
“For self-glory, I don’t have any desire, especially in ’24, to change things,” Benning said. “When I get to ’26, I will be 69 years old. At what point do I look and say, you know what, it’s time to hop on my motorcycle and forget about politics?”
The role of lieutenant governor is largely ceremonial, its primary responsibility presiding over the state Senate when the part-time Legislature is in session. Benning has leaned into his years in the chamber, saying on the campaign trail that he knows the Senate’s ins and outs and is committed to providing stability after a string of short-lived lieutenant governorships.
“I really believe this institution needs some institutional knowledge and history,” Benning said. “We’re coming out of Covid still. We have one-third of the body turning over. You need to have somebody transition that process and not (leave) the impression that they’re using it as a revolving door.”
Benning’s pledge is also, of course, a line of attack against his opponent Zuckerman, who himself served as LG for four years before vacating the seat to unsuccessfully challenge Scott for the governor’s office in 2020. Now, Zuckerman wants his old job back, and Benning has publicly questioned how peacefully the Progressive/Democrat could work with Scott after a brutal 2020 campaign.
Benning, on the other hand, has continually flexed his amicable relationship with Scott in an attempt to drive home the promise of a unified governor-lieutenant governor team, as well as to appeal to the broad swath of moderate Vermonters who continue to elect Scott by wide margins.
Baruth told VTDigger that Benning is “absolutely” positioning himself to be the next Phil Scott.
“I think without explicitly coming out and saying it, Joe is saying, ‘The Phil Scott era is ending. Do you want our ability to compete at the statewide level to end as well? And if you don’t, then you’re going to need somebody like Phil Scott, and that’s me,’” Baruth said.
State Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, told VTDigger that he’s “not necessarily going to go there” when it comes to calling Benning the next Phil Scott. “But they are somewhat similar,” he said.
“They’re both what I would consider to be moderate Republicans,” Brock said. “And in Vermont right now, as a Republican who’s going to get elected to statewide office, I think you have to be a moderate Republican, or you’re not going to get elected. I mean, that’s just a point of fact.”
When asked if he sees himself as the next Phil Scott, Benning scoffs.
“I look at Phil Scott and I see a man who, 12 years ago, looked youthful and vibrant,” Benning said. “And I look at him today and that job has worn him down.”
Benning also questioned his own electability for the state’s top office. Voters are anxious to see women occupy those seats instead, he said. He admitted that if former state representative and early frontrunner Kitty Toll had prevailed in the Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial primary, he would have been “toast” this November.
But Benning also conceded that he is deeply concerned about the state of the Vermont GOP, and as he looks around for viable Republican candidates who could foreseeably succeed Scott, he comes up short. If he wins the lieutenant governor’s race this year, he said he knows the pressure to run for governor will be “tremendous” if Scott retires from his post next cycle.
“I don’t think I would succumb to that,” he concluded.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Joe Benning wants Phil Scott’s voters — but says he doesn’t want his job.