Democrat Molly Gray defeated Republican Scott Milne on Tuesday night to become Vermont’s next lieutenant governor, making her the fourth woman ever elected to the state’s No. 2 office.
Gray, a 36-year-old assistant attorney general, claimed victory around 11 p.m. Tuesday night during a speech at the Great Northern restaurant in Burlington’s South End, where she lives. Though the Associated Press had not yet called the race, Gray led Milne by eight points — 50 to 42 percent — with 243 of 275 precincts reporting, according to unofficial results from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office.
"Our next generation is here, and we are ready to lead,” Gray said in her victory speech. “Together I know we can take Vermont forward. I also know we can be an example for the nation for how to come together, work together, put divisiveness aside, and succeed together."
Milne, who did not appear at any public event on election night, could not immediately be reached for comment. But he called Gray to concede shortly after her victory speech, according to her campaign. And in a concession tweet late Tuesday night, he wrote, "I send sincere congratulations to @mollyforvermont on her victory this evening, and wish her success moving forward."
Gray’s victory caps a remarkable rise, from an unknown player in Vermont politics to one of its highest ranking officials. It also means Vermont will continue to have its top two office holders from different parties: Earlier in the evening, Republican Gov. Phil Scott won a third term, easily fending off a challenge from outgoing Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat.
The LG's race was the most closely watched campaign in Vermont heading into Election Day. A September poll found it to be in a statistical dead heat, and many viewed it as the only statewide race that truly felt as if it could go either way on Tuesday.
The candidates provided a clear contrast in their visions for how the state could best recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Gray kicked off her bid in late February, several weeks before Vermont's first coronavirus case. But instead of changing her message in light of the pandemic's upheaval, Gray doubled down, arguing that it had only further demonstrated the importance of her top issues: expanding broadband, improving access to affordable childcare and instituting a paid family leave program. She argued that investments in such programs were the only way for Vermont to retain young people and attract new residents.
Milne, meantime, declared his run in May, when the pandemic had already ground the state's economy to a halt. His message was one of austerity, centered around the belief that Vermont needs to ensure that its small businesses survive the next two years. He and his supporters argued that his business background made him the best choice to help Vermont weather its COVID-related economic crisis.
Much of that heat was directed at Gray. The Democrat faced repeated questions about whether her 15 months living in Switzerland from 2017 and 2018 made her ineligible to serve as lieutenant governor under a constitutional requirement that Vermont LGs must have "resided in this State four years next preceding the day of election."
She was also plagued by criticism from across the political spectrum for not casting ballots in the four national elections between 2008 and 2018.
Yet her win Tuesday suggested that the perceived marks were not enough to tamp down the enthusiasm surrounding her candidacy.
Some of Gray’s most ardent support came from top current and former Democratic officials. She received endorsements from former governors Madeleine Kunin and Peter Shumlin well before the primary. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — both of whom Gray has known for years — then backed her campaign shortly after she received the nomination. Gray interned for Leahy’s office while she was a student at the University of Vermont and went on to work for Welch, first on his 2006 campaign and later as a staffer in his Washington, D.C., office.
During an online event hosted by the Vermont Democratic Party, Leahy praised his former intern for running an “extraordinary campaign” that “focused on the needs of Vermonters.” He then took a swipe at Milne, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to defeat Leahy in 2016.
“Her opponent, not surprisingly, ran a relentlessly negative campaign,” Leahy said of Milne, adding that he was proud Gray "lifted her campaign above the attacks."
Gray, too, made note of the campaign’s tenor during her victory speech. She said she watched Milne center his campaign around “misleading and nasty personal attacks,” and she criticized him for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads in “an attempt to buy an election, destroy my reputation and diminish my integrity.”
“Tonight, we rejected that,” she said. “And you can rest assured that as Vermont's next lieutenant governor, I will do what I have done throughout this campaign, and put people before politics, every single day.”