Candidates for Vermont’s lone seat in the U.S. House took to the debate stage in Essex on Tuesday night for their first media-sponsored debate since early voting began last week — and since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last Friday.
In back-to-back debates at the Double E Performance Center, Democratic and Republican contenders addressed abortion policy, the future of the court, skyrocketing inflation and the U.S. Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021.
They also took the opportunity to get in a few digs at one another.
The debate, which was hosted by VTDigger, featured all seven major-party candidates seeking to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who is vacating his seat to run for the U.S. Senate. Even in a historic election year featuring an unusual amount of turnover, Vermont’s race for U.S. House has become the contest to watch.
The end of Roe and federal abortion rights
During the first half of the debate, the four Democratic candidates — state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, former congressional staffer Sianay Chase Clifford, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Dr. Louis Meyers — were united in denouncing the Supreme Court’s ruling last week striking down federal abortion protections. Meyers called the outcome “absolutely tragic” and said “it’s going to cost lives.”
Balint, Chase Clifford and Gray each agreed that Congress’ next step should be to end the Senate filibuster — a parliamentary rule requiring 60 votes to pass major legislation, rather than a simple majority — in order to codify abortion protections at the federal level. Senate Democrats already attempted that once after a leaked draft of the high court’s decision was reported by Politico and before the final ruling came down last week. That effort failed by a 49-51 vote.
Meyers differed from his primary opponents on the question of ending the filibuster, saying he opposed such a step.
On the other side of the aisle — and in the second half of the debate — were Republican primary contenders Liam Madden, an anti-war Marine veteran who identifies as an independent; accountant and conservative YouTuber Ericka Redic; and former GOP congressional nominee Anya Tynio.
Madden decried the high court’s ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, saying it sets a “dangerous precedent for the government to have influence over our own medical decisions.” Redic and Tynio eached hailed the end of Roe and the resulting empowerment of state government to regulate abortion. Tynio said she supported the decision on the basis of her anti-abortion beliefs.
Redic said that the legal reasoning behind Roe was always shaky.
“Even (the late Supreme Court Justice) Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned Americans that if they wanted to preserve the right to abortion, it would need to be done through the legislative process, and they have not successfully done that in the last 50 years. And so really, Democrats have only themselves to blame if they're concerned about this right no longer being available,” Redic said.
Asked whether they would support a national abortion ban should one be contemplated by a future Congress, Redic said no and that such decisions should be made by the states. Tynio said she would back a federal ban. Madden said he would support “compromise” legislation, based on fetal viability.
The Democratic candidates voiced concern over the Supreme Court’s conservative makeup, which is due in large part to former President Donald Trump’s appointment of three justices during his four years in office.
Balint said that “nothing should be off the table at this point” when it comes to Supreme Court reforms, such as expanding the bench and enacting term limits on justices, who currently serve lifetime appointments.
“Yes, we need to codify Roe in statute, but we need court reform, absolutely,” she said. “We need to have on the table considering term limits, considering whether we should expand the court. Nothing should be off the table at this point. This is, as (Meyers) said, about people's lives.”
Also potentially on the table for Balint, Chase Clifford and Gray is impeaching Supreme Court justices.
New York’s progressive U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already floated the idea, accusing Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh of lying under oath during their confirmation hearings when they indicated they would not vote to overturn Roe. Justice Clarence Thomas has come under fire in recent months after reporting brought to light his wife Ginni Thomas’ coordination with White House officials in hopes of overturning the 2020 presidential election.
Chase Clifford noted in her answer that impeachment by the House is just a first step and that removal from office would require conviction by the Senate. But Meyers said he wouldn’t back such a move. Congress twice impeached Trump, he noted, and failed to convict him. The process, Meyers added, is “divisive.”
Gray said impeachment proceedings are “certainly worth exploring” with justices who don’t “respect fundamental rights” or case precedent “and, frankly, may have lied under oath.” But she added that Congress has other high priorities on its plate, such as responding to the war in Ukraine and addressing inflation. Impeachments are time- and resource-intensive.
Given Thomas’ suggestion in a concurring opinion that he would roll back other rights guaranteed by the court, including same-sex marriage and contraception access, Chase Clifford called on the Democratic Party to “do the work of actually legislating” to codify social priorities and “(deliver) on these continual, decades-long campaign promises.”
“We have so much at risk. We need to act. We need to actually leverage the political capital that we have,” she said. “We campaign on these issues and fundraise on these issues and don't actually deliver.”
Balint and Gray go toe-to-toe
During portions of the debate when candidates were invited to ask one another questions, Balint and Gray — the two top-polling contenders in the Democratic primary — zeroed in on one another.
Balint came out of the gate asking Gray if she owed an apology to Vermonters for falsely claiming that she had voted for Hilary Clinton for president in 2016, when records show that Gray in fact did not vote for a six-year period, including in 2016.
“Let me be really clear,” Gray responded. “In 2016, I was overseas. I didn't have a plan to vote. I acknowledge that I waited until the last minute and that will always be on me.” Instead of relitigating her voting record, she said, she wants to advance voting rights legislation should she prevail in November.
When it was Gray’s turn to ask a question, she chose to continue her ongoing battle with Balint over the influence of Washington insiders and big money in the primary cycle. She cited the Balint campaign’s apparent deployment of so-called redboxing — a practice that winks at super PACs without directly coordinating with them — as well as a super PAC’s recent endorsement of Balint’s campaign, lobbyist donations and a late financial disclosure report, asking Balint to answer for it all.
Balint said that she had not heard of the term redboxing prior to recent media reports. Once suspicions were raised, she said, she instructed her team to take down the webpage in question.
Then Balint turned the tables on Gray.
“I have never benefited from a super PAC. There is only one candidate up here who has benefited from any super PAC spending, and that is Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in the 2020 election,” Balint said. “Tens of thousands of dollars were spent to support her campaign by a super PAC and there was no denunciation at that time.”
Chase Clifford joined in on the fun. She posed a question to both Balint and Gray: With both having denounced the role of “big money” in the electoral system, Chase Clifford asked, what constitutes so-called big money?
“I think taking money from individuals who are not in line with my values but are willing to max out to my campaign, that is taking money that is not true to my values,” Balint answered.
And she got in another dig at Gray, for whom Washington-based lobbyists have held campaign fundraisers: “I think having a campaign funded by a lot of D.C. insider lobbyists is not good for the democratic process.”
Gray was unequivocal in her response to the query: “I think I've been pretty clear. I think super PACs are considered very big money.”
Cold feet on Biden’s proposed gas tax holiday
In both the Democratic and Republican debates, candidates acknowledged that Americans are struggling under the weight of historic inflation and record-high gas prices. And in a rare display of bipartisan agreement, they all appeared lukewarm to President Joe Biden’s proposal for a gas tax holiday to ease the burden on consumers.
Balint said she “certainly understand(s) the President's desire to have a gas tax holiday.” But, she said, she is concerned it could serve as “more of a boon to fossil fuel companies” and not so much to the average American.
Instead, Balint said, she backs proposals to prohibit price-gouging and the imposition of a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies, saying “they are raking it in hand over fist while Vermonters are struggling.”
Tynio also dismissed the idea of a gas tax holiday as not “addressing the real issues.” Instead, she said, “We need to stop the war on American citizens and fossil fuels.”
“It is driving rates up. It is punishing Americans for using fossil fuels when there is no viable alternative. We do not have an infrastructure that can support all-electric vehicles, and we do not have a realistic path to move away from fossil fuels,” she said.
Chase Clifford and Gray both said that gas prices and inflation are only part of the problem. The costs of necessities such as child care, prescription drugs and housing keep going up, while incomes — especially for those with fixed incomes, such as Social Security recipients — remain relatively stagnant.
Sowing doubt over the 2020 election
Hours before the congressional hopefuls took to the stage, sitting members of Congress in Washington, D.C., conducted a last-minute, high-profile hearing as part of their investigation of the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol and attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified under oath to lawmakers that an irate Trump fought with his staffers and security detail to join the violent mob as it marched toward the Capitol and dismissed intelligence from his team about the rioters’ weaponry, saying they’re “not here to hurt me.”
“As an American, I was disgusted. It was unpatriotic. It was un-American. We were watching the Capitol building get defaced over a lie,” Hutchinson told House members, referring to Trump’s repeated, baseless claims that Biden’s election was illegitimate.
Still, on Tuesday night, Redic and Tynio sowed doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 election results without providing any proof. Tynio falsely claimed that the legitimacy of the election “hasn't been proven either way.”
“We need to take very serious steps to secure our elections. I do believe that we have a serious problem with voter fraud and also foreign interference,” Tynio said without offering evidence.
Redic conceded that Trump’s election fraud allegations have “not been proven in the courts yet.” But she balked at the “rhetoric” surrounding the events January 6, 2021: “It's the first insurrection I've ever heard of that didn't have any gun charges related to it,” she quipped, despite the select committee’s release of police radio recordings from that day reporting numerous participants who appeared to have pistols and AR-15s. Hutchinson testified earlier Tuesday that Trump and other top White House officials were aware that rioters were armed.
Redic also falsely claimed that “the only people who died that day were protesters, and they were killed by Capitol Police.” Four demonstrators died the day of the riot, but only one was killed by police. Two died of natural causes — a heart attack and a stroke — and another was trampled in a stampede and ultimately died of an accidental overdose.
One hundred fifty officers police officers who responded to the Capitol on January 6 were injured, and several died soon afterward, some by suicide.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.