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Saturday, Dec 9, 2023

Reflections on the Midterm Election in Vermont

I first learned of John Klar on Facebook. He bought his first wave of ads in the late spring. They were professional, yet rustic: photos of him working on his farm or interacting with constituents, promising in several captions to “bring together people from different political views,” and to “bring a critical eye to Montpelier” in another. The State Senate district I live in, encompassing most of rural Orange County, Vt., was the one in which Klar was campaigning, and my first thought was that he seemed made in the image of Phil Scott, Vermont’s prominent Republican governor. My home state has a history of electing moderate conservatives with staggering margins of victory, but in recent years, few other than Scott have been able to put together the pieces of the puzzle on election day. Klar’s ads, heralding his common sense and emphasis on fiscal responsibility, were like those I saw for Scott every election cycle, so I assumed he was trying to replicate the governor’s success.

Like most Vermonters, I’m a Democrat. And although I don’t despise moderate Republicans like Phil Scott, having come of age in the Trump era, the thought of the GOP as a whole leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The Democrat who has represented Orange County for my whole life, Mark MacDonald, hasn’t had a tough reelection campaign in the last two decades, and Vermonters hate rocking the boat. MacDonald has long been well-liked and handily reelected, so early in the summer, I had no worries about his campaign. 

But I started to see more and more of Klar’s advertisements as the election cycle progressed. Houses that had Trump signs proudly displayed Klar signs as well, but so did houses of people I knew usually voted for MacDonald. I also started to see more of Klar on Facebook. The captions of his posts that I saw in my feed were changing: “protect children from scandalous ideological conditioning in schools,” and a fundraising ad about giving Mark MacDonald a “retirement blanket.” (This was an attempt to poke fun at rising heat prices.) It was becoming clearer to me that Klar was a hardline conservative, not a moderate. The comments on his posts were alarming as well: people voicing their fear of undocumented immigrants, their beliefs in conspiracies about the 2020 election and stating that Burlington is becoming a hub for drugs and sex trafficking. Klar responded positively to many of these comments, expressing sympathy with their viewpoints.

As his campaign’s momentum grew, he became bolder, referring to a local school superintendent as “Herr” and blaming him for supporting “content-filtering totalitarianism.” Klar also called a 14-year-old transgender high school student “a student with a penis leering at [people's] daughters while changing.” Becoming more and more combative by the day, he mirrored the statements of election deniers running for Senate and statewide office across the country. Panicked, my friends and I tried to spread the word about Klar’s radicalism to our neighbors. For the first time in my life, I felt I was in the midst of a highly competitive campaign — one with significant ramifications. 

In the end, MacDonald won by about 10%. I felt a little silly for having worried so much, especially as there were greater stakes in elections in places like Pennsylvania and Georgia. But time provided me with more clarity, and the message I’m taking from this election is that extreme views like Klar’s, even if not necessarily potent enough to win, can still garner immense support and enthusiasm. Vermont is a state that responds surprisingly well to radical populism — the Take Back Vermont movement in the early 2000s is one recent example — so perhaps it is unsurprising that candidates like Klar gained traction in other parts of the state. 

Even in places like Orange County and Middlebury that appear to be oases of calm and stability, the hate and vitriol on which Klar founded his campaign are still prevalent. Although I wish this wasn’t a lesson I needed to learn, the election reminded me that the civility and level-headed government we enjoy in Vermont is not something we should take for granted. Keeping this state supportive of local industries, welcoming to newcomers and safe for marginalized groups is no small task, and is something that all who live here, and all who attend Middlebury, should fight for.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Middlebury Campus or Middlebury College.