Politics

'It's finally our time': Becca Balint wins Vermont's Democratic US House nomination

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

Updated Wednesday, Aug. 10, at 2:55 a.m.

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. With all but one precinct reporting early Wednesday morning, Balint had picked up close to 60% of the vote to Gray’s 36%. 

Balint is set to face Liam Madden, a self-described independent who defeated two conservatives to win the Republican nomination Tuesday, in November’s general election. The seat opened up last year when incumbent U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he would step aside to run for the U.S. Senate.

“It's finally our time. It's finally our time,” a jubilant Balint told a cheering crowd of well over a hundred supporters gathered in a courtyard in downtown Brattleboro, her hometown. “I never thought that this would be where I would be in my life. I wanted it so badly but I did not think it would be possible for me to run as an openly gay politician.”

Balint entered the race having never run statewide, and lagging behind Gray in name recognition. But her momentum had been steadily building for months. 

“I was the long shot. I was the underdog. But here's the secret. This campaign was not built on connections. It was built on relationships,” Balint told her supporters, two hours after the polls had closed.

Gray conceded in a speech at the coworking space Hula in the South End of Burlington just before 9 p.m.

“I can say that while my disappointment is profound, so too is my gratitude for this opportunity,” Gray said. “This was a deeply tough race with incredibly qualified candidates making their case to Vermonters … If someone had told me years ago that running for Congress was something that a farm kid from Newbury could do, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray concedes to Becca Balint in the Democratic primary for Vermont's lone U.S. House seat August 9, 2022. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Despite receiving support from across the political spectrum, particularly among her colleagues in the state Legislature, Balint ran a campaign championing some of the national progressive movement’s banner issues, including Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. On Tuesday evening, she pledged to stay true to those commitments in Washington.

“I will never, ever as long as I live accept injustice and accept this unconscionable wealth gap that we have in this country. I will never get used to families not having what they need. I will never get used to people across this country just barely surviving in the richest country in human civilization,” she said.

Balint also used her time to shout out someone from across the aisle — U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., one of the GOP’s few remaining critics of former President Donald Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection.

“We are fighting against the cynicism that says your votes don't matter. We're fighting against the cynicism of a party that doesn't seem to believe in the Constitution. And I'm going to use my time right now to say there are good people — there are good people trying to fight these forces,” she said.

Sianay Chase Clifford, the Vermont Progressive Party-endorsed candidate, dropped out weeks before primary day but still appeared on the ballot and had less than 1% of the vote at the time the race was called. Louis Meyers, a South Burlington physician who ran a largely self-funded campaign, got 1.6%.

Madden, an anti-war Marine veteran, defeated accountant and right-wing YouTuber Ericka Redic, as well as Orleans County Republican Committee vice chair Anya Tynio, in the three-way Republican primary. 

By early Wednesday morning with all but one precinct reporting, Madden held a 9-point lead in the race with 36% of the vote. Redic trailed him with 27%, and Tynio had 23%.

Reached just after 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Madden said he was “amazed” by the result. 

“I don’t even know how to put this,” he said. “I feel that I am getting the honor of a very sacred responsibility to help give people some choices that they really want.”

In response to a question, Madden balked at the notion that a Balint win this fall was all but certain.

“Becca Balint will be making an enormous mistake to think that her message will resonate with general election voters just the same as it does to Democratic primary voters,” he said. “I think that I have a message that the Vermonter who votes in the general election is very interested in hearing.”

Dozens of Gray’s friends and campaign staff had gathered at Hula by 7 p.m. Tuesday evening as polls closed across the state and results began to trickle in. 

Grand Isle State’s Attorney Doug DiSabito, who endorsed Gray, was at the event. While former Govs. Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin — some of Gray’s most high-profile backers — were part of a virtual campaign celebration when polls closed Tuesday, the two did not attend the Hula celebration in person.

Just after 8:40 p.m., Gray came up to a podium surrounded by her husband and campaign staff, some of whom appeared to be tearing up. Gray said she had just called Balint and congratulated her on winning the Democratic primary.

In her roughly 5-minute remarks, Gray said she was proud to have given Vermonters “a real choice” in the race.

“This year has been one of historic proportions, as we know, with the retirement of Sen. [Patrick] Leahy and so many other Vermonters who serve our state,” she said, thanking the senator for being “a role model” to her. “It is inspiring to see so many people step forward to run for the Statehouse, statewide office and, yes, to run for Congress.” 

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 had carved out a reputation as a liberal but pragmatic legislative leader, had 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 had since been viewed by many as a proxy war between Sanders and Leahy, whose planned retirement at the end of this term set the year’s historic election cycle in motion. Welch, the state’s sole member of the House, 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 raised basically equivalent amounts of money — 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 D.C. 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.

In her concession speech Tuesday night, Gray again pointed to Balint’s funding from national organizations, saying she was proud of her own campaign for taking on “a strong group of opponents plus a handful of outside groups.”

“Despite the tsunami of outside funding that poured into Vermont for my opponent, we kept our commitment to work our tails off every day, give Vermonters our very best and run a positive, issue-focused campaign we would always feel proud of,” she said. 

Following Gray’s concession speech, Hanna Holm, an 18-year-old from South Burlington who works on a dairy farm and at the University of Vermont Medical Center, said it was disappointing to see results coming in throughout the evening Tuesday that showed Balint in the lead. 

“I’m disappointed that Molly didn't win,” said Holm, who had volunteered with Gray’s campaign. “But I also think, trying to look on a positive side, I'm ecstatic that we will hopefully be having a woman go to Washington — an LGBTQIA+ woman as well.” 

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, codify reproductive rights and gun reform. Gray, on the other hand, 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.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the state U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney represents.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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