Politics

The Democratic primary for Vermont’s congressional seat was expected to be close. It wasn’t. Why?

Becca Balint celebrates her 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

In the waning hours of the historic Democratic primary for the state’s sole U.S. House seat, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray characterized the choice before Vermonters as a sort of proxy war between the progressive and centrist wings of the party.

"Do they want to send the next member of ‘the Squad’ or the Congressional Progressive Caucus to Washington? The next Bernie Sanders?" Gray said in an interview with NECN & NBC10 Boston. "Or do they want to send the next Pat Leahy or Peter Welch? Someone who’s a pragmatic Democrat, who has a track record of working across the aisle?"

They chose the former. Becca Balint, who was endorsed by Sanders, won in a blowout while Gray, backed by Leahy, trailed more than 20 points behind. And in a primary where plenty of voters looked up the candidates just hours before heading to the polls, many said a stamp of approval from one of Vermont’s most popular politicians made the decision easy.

“I went with who Bernie endorsed,” said Matt Culbertson, a 38-year-old IT worker, outside the polls in Hartford. 

But Balint’s momentum had been building for months before Sanders entered the fray, and her personal appeal transcended the ideological spectrum. 

Charlotte Hultquist, a 41-year-old mother of five, said she used to vote Republican but had migrated to the Democrats because of former President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, she also cast her ballot for Balint in Hartford, and she said it ultimately boiled down not to the candidate’s stances on the issues, but instead their personality.

Balint seemed “trustworthy,” Hultquist said, and “pretty much like a down to earth, comfortable, but very smart person.”

“A lot of people gave the same type of answers. But I guess the way they gave it and the examples they used is why I picked people like (Balint),” she said.

Becca Balint waits to be introduced at a victory party where she celebrated her win over Molly Gray. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Liz Bankowski, who managed former Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s historic race in 1984, said it was not only Balint’s “grasp of the issues” but also her “incredible emotional intelligence about people and her ability to connect” that made her a “superb” candidate.

“Authenticity carries candidates through no matter who they are and what race they're in,” said Bankowski, who supported Balint in this race. “Sometimes we think voters don't know that. But they do know that.”

Female candidates are also much more likely to have their credentials questioned than male candidates, Bankowski said. And that made Gray, who repeatedly leaned on her association with Leahy (she was his intern) and Welch (she was his scheduler), vulnerable.

“It's got to have a little bit more to it than that,” Bankowski said. Balint, on the other hand, had easily legible accomplishments in Montpelier as a legislative leader who worked on major bills.

Patty Greenfield, 67, a retired preschool teacher, said she cast her ballot for Balint in part because of how thin Gray’s resume sounded.

“I think she’s worked hard to get where she is and I think Molly tried to tilt her experience to make it sound like she’s a better candidate and more experienced,” she said outside the polls in Williston on Tuesday. 

Clear trend

It is hard to quantify something like momentum. But a look through campaign finance filings and polling data validates that narrative. Even as other candidates plateaued, engagement with Balint’s campaign only grew. 

And that trend was evident even before key moments in the race, including state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale’s decision to drop out and endorse Balint, or Bernie’s entrance.

(Because donors who gave under $200 to the candidates, which campaigns do not have to itemize, were inconsistently reported, VTDigger removed them from this analysis.)

Balint’s momentum seemed to compound and build on itself, Bankowski said — and the campaign peaked at just the right time.

“They generated so many volunteers and spawned some spontaneous, you know, people just showing up on their behalf,” she said. “And you know, it really resonated with me because even way back in Madeleine's day, I remember thinking at the end, ‘What is happening here?’ You know, there was a spontaneity happening around the campaign.”

Gray, who had run a statewide race before, entered the race as the best-known candidate. But polling data also indicated a significant chunk of the electorate had an unfavorable view of her.

“Name recognition is one thing, but if people know who you are and they're not resonating with your message — it doesn't matter,” said Julia Barnes, a top Balint adviser who previously was executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party and a senior campaign staffer for Sanders.

Making Balint better known to voters was hard, Barnes said, and took a lot of money and time.

“But as Becca closed the name-recognition gap, her favorables skyrocketed. And Molly's favorables with the target electorate did not change over the entire course of the campaign,” she said.

A regional advantage may have also played a small role. Jim Dandeneau, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party, thinks a few races — namely the contested primaries for secretary of state and attorney general — were in part decided in Windham County, Balint’s base. 
It isn’t what clinched the election for Balint, who won big everywhere — including in Burlington, where Gray lives and hosted her campaign headquarters — but it contributed to her lopsided margins. The Vermont Senate leader won her hometown of Brattleboro with 85% of the vote, and saw similar results in neighboring towns.

“I think the smart strategy in Democratic primaries for a couple of years and a couple of cycles now has been to run fairly even in Chittenden and Washington (counties), and try and run up the score in Windham where there is a really, really strong and passionate batch of Democratic voters,” Dandeneau said.

Strategy matters

Primaries are often won and lost based on a candidate’s ground game. And Balint’s canvassing effort was also widely lauded. 

Barnes estimated that the campaign made over a million attempts to reach voters and spoke directly to roughly 75,000 of them through its text and phone-banking operation in the months leading up to primary day. In the preceding weekend alone, she said, Balint volunteers knocked on nearly 10,000 doors.

Balint’s campaign also eschewed honk-and-waves, a highly visible part of Gray’s strategy in the homestretch of the race.

“It feels good for local candidates to go and wave at traffic and get people to honk and give a thumbs up,” Barnes said. “But that doesn't help people make a vote plan. It doesn't engage in any persuasive messaging. And you can't guarantee that the people driving down Shelburne Road at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday are your target voters. So, yeah — no more honk-and-waves is my message to any candidate I talk to.”

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

Gray campaign manager Samantha Sheehan defended her team’s field program as “robust and highly effective.” It made over 300,000 attempts to reach voters, she said, and knocked on some 5,000 doors.

Alex MacLean, a top campaign adviser to Gray, who also ran former Gov. Peter Shumlin’s winning campaign in 2010 and 2012, believes that the lieutenant governor picked the wrong message.

“I think that the Vermont electorate showed that they want progressive leadership,” she said. But she also argued that the $1.6 million in outside spending that poured into the race in the final month of the campaign from LGBTQ+ and progressive political action committees to support Balint played a role.

“That put Becca’s message … in Vermonters’ mailboxes, on their TVs, on their radios — and repetition like that works,” she said. MacLean doesn’t necessarily think that’s what won the election for Balint, but she believes it contributed to the margin by which she won.

Sheehan, too, pointed to that outside help, which she said extended beyond advertising and included voter contact at the very end of the campaign.

“With that really profound outside support, they may have been able to make decisions about resources differently,” she said.

Balint supporters and other observers also pointed to the role that outside spending played in Gray’s loss. But many argued that it was the Gray camp’s relentless attacks about it — not the spending itself — that hurt her the most.

Chris Graff, a former longtime Vermont bureau chief for The Associated Press, expressed disbelief that the Gray campaign had gone so far, in the final days of the campaign, as to accuse Marty Rouse, a staffer with the LGBTQ Victory Fund, of potential wrongdoing. (When pressed, the Gray camp offered no evidence of any illegality.)

“Marty Rouse is this wonderful person who has sort of been at the center of most big Vermont campaigns and events,” Graff said — including the state’s fight for marriage equality. 

“I just don't know why they did that,” he said.

Paul Heintz contributed reporting.

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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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