Becca Balint wins Vermont Democratic primary for US House

  • Becca Balint, center, celebrates her apparent victory over Molly Gray for the Democratic nomination for U.S. House in Brattleboro on primary day, Tuesday, Aug. 9. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger Glenn Russell

Published: 8/9/2022 9:04:43 PM
Modified: 8/9/2022 9:01:27 PM

Becca Balint, the leader of the Vermont Senate, has won the Democratic primary for the state’s lone U.S. House seat. She is now poised to become the first woman — and openly LGBTQ+ person — the state sends to Washington.

What was initially believed to be a closely fought race was instead a blowout victory for Balint, who led Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, her chief rival, by more than 20 points less than two hours after polls closed.

Gray conceded in a speech in Burlington at 8:43 p.m.

The three-way Republican primary had not yet been called, but Balint was the overwhelming favorite to win the general election in November. The candidates running on the GOP side were accountant and right-wing YouTuber Ericka Redic, Orleans County Republican Committee vice chair Anya Tynio, and Liam Madden, an anti-war Marine veteran who identifies as an independent.

Five candidates initially put themselves forward for the Democratic nomination, but by primary day, the field had been whittled down to three. State Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, another leading candidate, had been jockeying with Balint for progressive votes but dropped out in late May. She immediately endorsed Balint upon her exit, a move that effectively united a divided left around Ram Hinsdale’s former rival — and against Gray.

Balint, who has carved out a reputation as a liberal but pragmatic legislative leader, has skeptics on the left. Chase Clifford, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., notably endorsed no one when she stepped off the stage. But within a month of the election, Vermont’s progressive standard-bearers had nevertheless largely closed ranks around Balint.

Some of Ram Hinsdale’s highest-profile backers, including environmentalist Bill McKibben and U.S. House Progressive Caucus chair U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., later migrated over to Balint’s team. And Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., perhaps the nation’s most iconic progressive politician, entered the fray in early July, declaring his support for Balint.

His nod was not a passive endorsement — Sanders barnstormed with her across the state in the campaign’s final days and activated his formidable fundraising apparatus on her behalf.

The race has since been viewed by many as a proxy war between Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., whose retirement at the end of this term set the year’s historic election cycle in motion. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., the state’s sole representative, is vacating his seat to run for Leahy’s.

Though Leahy never formally endorsed Gray, she has enjoyed the institutional support of many in his inner circle. And in the last days of the race, Leahy’s political action committee donated $5,000 to Gray’s campaign, and the Senator made public in a statement that he had cast his ballot for her.

Balint and Gray are largely in alignment on the majority of issues, although Balint tends to take more liberal stances, particularly on issues of criminal justice reform and climate change.

The two frontrunners fundraised basically equivalent amounts — about $1 million apiece — but Balint benefited from a torrent of outside support from national LGBTQ+ and progressive groups, who poured nearly $1.6 million into pro-Balint advertising in the final weeks of the race.

Gray vigorously sought to make the outside spending from national groups into a liability for Balint, decrying the influence of big money in politics. But the Gray camp’s swings on issues of campaign finance did not appear to do much to move the momentum of the race back in their favor — and may have even backfired.

The strategy dredged up news from 2020 that Gray herself had benefited from a dark money group in her race for lieutenant governor, and inadvertently highlighted her own support from corporate lobbyists in Washington. It also angered some in the gay community, who criticized Gray for taking aim at spending by LGBTQ+ groups, particularly given the worsening national climate for LGBTQ+ rights.

Without major areas of disagreement on policy, the primary has been less a contest of ideas than it has been a referendum on each candidate’s character and experience. Both leaned heavily on their personal stories in their pitch to voters.

Balint’s campaign motto was “courage and kindness,” and she spoke often of growing up gay, the granddaughter of a Jewish man murdered in the Holocaust. Gray pledged to bring “Vermont values” to Washington, often citing her upbringing on her family’s Upper Valley farm in stump speeches and TV ads.

With six years in legislative leadership, Balint also touted her achievements in Montpelier, having helped pass major housing investments, codified reproductive rights and enacted gun reform. Gray, on the other hand, has emphasized the nearly five years she spent working in Washington, first as a scheduler in Welch’s office and later as a congressional affairs associate for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Balint has ascended quickly through the ranks in Vermont politics. The 54-year-old former teacher and stay-at-home-mom first emerged on the scene in 2014, when she won her Windham County state Senate seat. She became majority leader in the Democrat-controlled chamber in 2017, the start of her second term, and just four years later was unanimously elected by her Senate colleagues to be pro tem, the chamber’s top position.

She could climb higher still — and soon. Sanders will be 82 when his current term is up in 2024, and many wonder if he will retire. Asked in a recent campaign debate if she would consider running for the U.S. Senate in two years, Balint declined to rule it out.

“I always say, you never know what’s around the corner,” she responded.

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