How Balint Won — and Gray Lost — the Democratic House Primary | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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How Balint Won — and Gray Lost — the Democratic House Primary

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Published August 17, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 30, 2022 at 3:53 p.m.


Sen. Becca Balint on primary night in Brattleboro - FILE: ZACH STEPHENS
  • File: Zach Stephens
  • Sen. Becca Balint on primary night in Brattleboro

When Becca Balint addressed the crowd at her primary night victory celebration in Brattleboro, she said she had steeled herself for a long night and a close finish. Despite two recent polls that had shown her with a double-digit lead over Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, her top rival in the Democratic primary for the state's U.S. House seat, the Vermont Senate president pro tempore had warned her campaign team against heedless optimism. But the polls were onto something: Balint won quickly and decisively, garnering 59 percent of the vote to Gray's 36.

For months, the marquee race of this election season had seemed like a much tighter contest; in fact, in its early days, the primary had looked like Gray's to lose. She had statewide name recognition from her official post, institutional support within the Democratic establishment and an elevator pitch that seemed precision-engineered to appeal to Vermonters who value homegrown talent: She was born and raised on a farm in South Newbury, worked on Capitol Hill and abroad, and, after a stint as an assistant attorney general and a successful 2020 run for lieutenant governor, was seeking to represent her home state in Congress. 

Gray cast herself as a pragmatic liberal in the tradition of two of her former bosses — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), whom she hoped to succeed, and retiring U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), whose seat Welch is seeking. Leahy, for whom Gray interned as an undergraduate, tacitly endorsed her by donating to her campaign through his political action committee and announcing that he had voted for her.

Balint, a former middle school teacher from Brattleboro, had never run statewide, and at the outset of her campaign, she was relatively unknown outside southeastern Vermont and Statehouse circles. In a January Vermont Public poll, only 7 percent of respondents said they would vote for her.

But in early summer, as the candidates ricocheted from meet and greets to debates to parades, Balint began to close the name-recognition gap that had been one of Gray's biggest advantages. In late July, political action committee-sponsored pro-Balint mailers and advertisements diminished that gap even further. By the time Leahy disclosed his support for his former intern in the weeks before the election, it was Balint, not Gray, who appeared to have the momentum.

On the campaign trail, Balint displayed an unaffected warmth. She gave hugs. She cracked jokes. She rolled up to events in her yellow Honda Fit, a spunky little woman in a spunky little car. "Becca's superpower is what her face does as you're speaking to her," Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) said. "She just radiates so much emotion back to you, and you can see that she finds what you're saying interesting, saddening, exhilarating." She showed people a more vulnerable side, too: Balint, who is Jewish and gay, talked openly about her grandfather's murder by Nazis in the Holocaust and about her own struggle to find acceptance.

While Gray had no policy-making experience, Balint could supplement her personal appeal with her legislative accomplishments on issues of particular urgency, including gun control and abortion access. Shortly after U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) threw his weight behind Balint, in early July, an internal poll by the Balint campaign showed its candidate 19 points ahead of Gray.

Meanwhile, Gray stuck to her talking points — her farm upbringing, her "nearly half decade working in and with Congress," her commitment to upholding the legacies of Welch and Leahy. By late July, she'd added to the rotation a vociferous condemnation of the money flowing into Balint's camp from political action committees, which spent a total of nearly $1.6 million on Balint's behalf.

But, ultimately, Gray's efforts to demonize PAC spending and her promise to carry on the Golden Age of Leahy failed to galvanize primary voters. In the end, the race became as much a contest between institutionalism and progressivism as it was a contest of authenticity.

"I think there was a feeling among voters that Vermont is bigger than this sort of 'farm-girl-made-good' story," said Julia Barnes, an adviser to Balint and a former executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party. "What folks are really looking for is a person whose openness and vulnerability connects with their own, particularly after the pandemic." At a time of widespread disillusionment with the country's political institutions, Barnes said, Gray's message of continuity struck the wrong note.

"It was so easy to campaign for Becca," said Quinn Pidgeon, a rising junior at Middlebury College who worked on her field team. "She's so genuine and caring and kind. It felt like all we had to do was literally tell people about her and what she had done. And I think that's how we won." In the four days leading up to the primary, Pidgeon and his fellow staffers and volunteers knocked on more than 15,000 doors; Gray's team reached just 5,000.

The Gray camp has remained loyal to its narrative that the PAC expenditures on Balint's behalf likely had more influence on the outcome of the race than the Balint campaign's own get-out-the-vote efforts. "Becca didn't close the name-recognition gap," said Carolyn Dwyer, a longtime Democratic operative and Leahy aide who served as an adviser to Gray. What made the difference, Dwyer contended, was "$1.6 million in television, digital and mail pieces."

But Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, thinks the Gray campaign erred in its relentless focus on outside spending.

"I don't think that resonated with a lot of Vermont voters, particularly since much of the outside spending was coming from groups that support LGBTQ candidates," Dickinson said. The LGBTQ Victory Fund Federal PAC, one of four political action committees that shelled out for Balint during the primary, spent nearly $1 million to support her candidacy. "It just seemed that the Gray campaign ... [came] close to being viewed as attacking the ideals for which that group stood," Dickinson said. "It wasn't as if Becca was getting money from, you know, the Koch brothers."

In late July, Joie Finley, an organizer of a pride parade in White River Junction, told VTDigger.org that she and her fellow coordinators were troubled enough by Gray's comments on PAC spending that they asked her to clarify her position on LGBTQ rights before permitting her to attend the event. In the end, Gray marched.

But there was another problem: The parade was held on the same day as a forum on racial justice hosted by the Rutland area and Windham County branches of the NAACP. Gray had promised to attend, along with the rest of the Democratic and Republican U.S. House candidates, but she canceled at the last minute. (Gray's campaign manager, Samantha Sheehan, later said Gray was "triple-booked" and had asked to participate virtually, which the organizers told her would not be possible.) Gray's absence did not go over well, and Mia Schultz and Steffen Gillom of the NAACP made no secret of their disapproval. In a statement at the time, they said they were "profoundly disappointed that there are candidates who decided to deprioritize the only forum addressing racial justice and civil rights."

Lt. Gov. Molly Gray - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Lt. Gov. Molly Gray

If Gray stumbled in the final weeks of the race, Balint got a major boost when Sanders endorsed her, then barnstormed with her and mobilized his fundraising apparatus in her service. "I can't overstate the importance of Bernie's endorsement," Natalie Silver, Balint's campaign manager, said. From one email and text message that Sanders sent to his national donor list, according to Silver, Balint raked in nearly $25,000; the barnstorming tour generated even more contributions. "The enthusiasm was crazy," Silver said.

A few weeks later, Balint got the stamp of approval from another progressive icon, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who had backed Gray in her 2020 bid for lieutenant governor. By late July, Balint's war chest had surpassed Gray's, with more than eight times as many donations under $100. Between July 1 and 20, Balint received more than 3,300 contributions; over the same period, Gray took in just 270. 

While the who's who of the Democratic left lined up behind Balint, the names of Gray's most prominent backers — Leahy and former governors Madeleine Kunin and Howard Dean — did not resonate nearly as much with younger voters, Dickinson said. "Bernie is no spring chicken, but his supporters are all quite young," he said. "And this election was really about a changing of the guard." 

In the final hours of the campaign, Gray tried to use Balint's association with Sanders to paint her as an uncompromising ideologue. "The choice Vermonters have is: 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 NBC5 the day before the primary. 

That line of attack might have been persuasive to undecided moderates in a general election, Dickinson said, but by that point, it was too late for Gray to tilt the scales. "There just weren't enough of those voters, I think, to matter in a primary," he said.

And there was another problem with Gray's rhetoric, Dickinson added: It lacked the ring of truth. In fact, Balint and Gray were largely aligned in most policy areas, save for certain criminal justice issues on which Balint, a proponent of safe injection sites and the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs, leaned more progressive than Gray.

The biggest difference between their platforms, Dickinson said, was in the tone of their messaging. Balint, for instance, has promised to fight for the Green New Deal, a sweeping restructuring of the economy and national infrastructure to end fossil fuel dependence. While Gray also said she would support a Green New Deal, she was more focused on incremental milestones in addressing climate change, such as reducing the cost of electric vehicles.

And Balint also had a history of compromise in the legislature, which undercut Gray's implied criticism. "Balint stood for progressive ideals, but people who worked with her in the Senate said that she was willing to cut deals to get half a loaf, if necessary, without compromising her principles in the long run," Dickinson said.

One of her colleagues, Sen. Corey Parent (R-Franklin), described Balint as someone who could effectively work across the aisle. Parent was one of two senators who voted against the state budget this legislative session. "In typical politics, there would have been a price to pay, and I might not have been able to get funding for my constituency," he said. But when he pushed for a line item for a project at the Franklin County State Airport, he said, Balint obliged without browbeating him. 

"We may not see eye to eye on everything," Parent said, "but I have always found her to be a fair-minded colleague." Recently, he took her on a tour of Franklin County and introduced her to some of his constituents. Parent did not endorse Balint, but he didn't chaperone any other Democratic House candidates around his district, either. "I wouldn't have done that for anyone that I didn't think highly of," he said.

While Balint could point to her track record in the Statehouse to make her case for advancing to Congress, Gray, who had no experience crafting policy, had to rely instead on her proximity to the legislative process — as a scheduler for Welch on Capitol Hill, then as a congressional liaison for the International Committee of the Red Cross and, most recently, as lieutenant governor, a chiefly ceremonial role. Until the final debate of the primary, Dickinson said, he didn't see Gray effectively articulate how those experiences might prepare her to represent Vermont in Congress.

"She tended to just sort of list jobs, as if her biography spoke for itself," he said.

In an interview two days after the election, Gray reiterated her conviction that the "tsunami" of outside spending had muddied the results. "Is money the reason that Sen. Balint won?" she mused. "We'll never know. We will never know." Asked what she learned about herself from the experience of running for Congress, Gray replied: "I will never again be naïve to the power of outside money in politics."

Balint, for her part, believes her team's "fierce ground game" was instrumental in carrying her to victory. "I had volunteers as young as ninth graders all the way up to people in their seventies door-knocking for me," she said. "It just makes me smile to think about all of the people that had a hand in bringing me to victory."

In November, she'll face Liam Madden, an independent who won the Republican primary. Vermont GOP chair Paul Dame announced on Saturday that the party's state committee has decided not to support Madden, because Madden will not commit to caucusing with Republicans in Congress. Nor will the party back the runner-up in the GOP contest, Ericka Redic, who now says she will run as a Libertarian; the GOP's rules prohibit the party from supporting her after she lost the Republican primary, according to Dame.

Last Thursday, Balint said it hadn't quite sunk in that she is heavily favored to be the first woman Vermont elects to Congress and the state's first openly gay representative in D.C. "That's all still theoretical for me," she said.

But when Sen. Warren called her to congratulate her on her primary win, she said, she couldn't help but feel a little giddy. 

"I'm an Elizabeth Warren fangirl," she said. "As soon as I got off the phone with her, I called a friend and said, 'I just talked to Elizabeth Warren! And we nerded out together!'"