Vermont’s Christina Nolan pleads case for Senate seat

  • Former U.S. Attorney for Vermont Christina Nolan at the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction, Vt., on Thursday, May 19, 2022. Nolan is running as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat that will be vacant after the retirement of Sen. Patrick Leahy. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2022 2:54:28 PM
Modified: 5/21/2022 2:54:09 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Every political campaign is a kind of experiment. How will the public react to this candidate and her message? Does this candidate have the combination of discipline, charm and stamina to connect with enough voters to make a viable run?

Those questions are even harder to answer when the candidate is new to elective politics and the campaign is taking place in an environment similar to a category 5 hurricane.

In running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Patrick Leahy, Christina Nolan is experimenting in high wind.

Nolan, 42 and a former U.S. Attorney for Vermont, filed her paperwork with the secretary of state’s office this week and embarked on a tour of the state, including a stop in White River Junction. Her candidacy for the Republican nomination and a likely general election campaign against U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, one of the state’s most battle-tested politicians, rests on her iconoclasm and on Vermonters’ age-old habit of voting for the person and not the party.

“I’m a Christina Nolan Republican,” she said in an interview in the lobby of the Hotel Coolidge. Her message, she added, is going to resonate with people across the political spectrum and bring out new voters.

“I absolutely believe Vermonters will cross party lines,” she said. “I don’t believe Vermonters want an extreme partisan.”

Her strategy is a necessary one. Vermont hasn’t sent a Republican to Washington since Jim Jeffords was elected to a third term in 2000. He dropped his party affiliation a year later, giving Democrats control of the Senate.

Like Jeffords, who belonged to a vanishing breed, the liberal New England Republican, Nolan holds views that put her outside the mainstream of her party. For example, a gay woman who has lived with her partner, Jill, for 16 years, Nolan supports the right of same-sex couples to marry.

She also holds views on abortion that put her at odds with her party, but closer to her state.

If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision articulating a right to privacy around abortion, abortion would still be legal in Vermont, she noted. She supports the rights set out in the Roe decision but said efforts to expand abortion to the third trimester go too far.

“I don’t want there to be any confusion,” she said. “I am present for preserving the right to abortion that’s established in Roe v. Wade.”

In running as an individual and an agent of change, Nolan said she can navigate the divide in her own party, between those loyal to former President Donald J. Trump and those who are trying to wrest the party from his control. She argued that both parties are to blame for the current level of partisan vitriol and inertia in Washington, which she called “broken and dysfunctional.”

So she’s also running as an outsider. She painted Welch as part of the problem, though not without generating a problem of her own.

Welch, she said, “won his first statewide election when I was 1 year old.” This isn’t quite right. Welch was elected to the state Senate from Windsor County in 1980, a little over a year after Nolan’s birth. Though he ran for Congress in 1988 and for governor in 1990, he wasn’t successful in a statewide election until 2006, when he won the U.S. House seat vacated by Bernie Sanders.

It’s unclear whether any other Republicans will emerge to contest the primary before Thursday’s filing deadline, but Nolan is looking ahead, sharpening her attacks on Welch and on the status quo.

“If you like the way things are going when it comes to the rise in violent crime in Vermont, and across the country, when it comes to skyrocketing overdose deaths in Vermont, and across the country, when it comes to inflation, which is a draconian tax on the middle class, and working class,” Nolan said, “if you like the way things are going, you have your career establishment Washington politician you can vote for, but if you want change, you can vote for me.”

It’s a mark of how politics works that a candidate asking to be judged on her merits as a person must also paint her opponent as a part of the faceless machinery of national politics. It’s always battle first, reach across the aisle later. By running as a Republican, doesn’t she run the risk of being tarred by her associations? And if her positions take her so far from her party’s orthodoxy, why not run as an independent? Nolan isn’t new to such questions.

“I’ve always identified as a Republican,” Nolan said.

Remaining so is a mark of authenticity, she said.

“I’m never going to take a stance just to get elected, just for strategic reasons. I go into rooms, and I say what I believe. And sometimes people are really angry about it,” she said. “But I will never say one thing in one room, one thing in a different room.”

The exception is the voting booth, where Nolan has declined to say how she voted for president. There’s a reason for that, she said, one related to her professional obligations as a prosecutor.

As U.S. attorney, “your personal politics cannot come into your work in any way, shape or form,” Nolan said. “We had cases that arguably had political implications.”

To talk about her views or how she voted would cast doubt on the work of her office and the 56 people who worked there. A Trump appointee, Nolan served from 2017 to 2021.

The political questions faced by the Senate are so enormous that it can be hard to see how a single candidate can make a dent. The coronavirus pandemic, climate change, a ground war in Europe, creeping authoritarianism, economic uncertainty — the list is long and gloomy, and the poisonous political atmosphere makes it seem that much worse. Nolan is undeterred.

“One person can make a difference,” she said. “I will lead. I will be an independent voice in Washington. Voters are so disgusted by the fight and by the hyper-partisanship by both parties moving to the extreme. They want someone who can find common ground and get them solutions.”

Assuming she wins the nomination, she’s got until Nov. 8 to run her experiment.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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