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Vermont Democrats face historic decision in open-seat House primary

By Gregory Krieg, CNN

Vermont’s designation as the only state to never send a woman to Congress is poised to be dashed in November, with state Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray leading the Democratic primary for the state’s at-large House seat.

The winner of Tuesday’s contest will be the overwhelming general election favorite to take the place of Rep. Peter Welch, who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy. That month, voters will also cast ballots on an amendment to the state constitution that would protect abortion rights.

Balint, a former schoolteacher first elected to the state legislature in 2014, is widely viewed as the frontrunner heading into Tuesday’s election, with Gray her closest rival. What began as a crowded field has thinned over the last few months. Louis Meyers, a physician, is the only other candidate actively campaigning following Sianay Chase Clifford’s withdrawal in July.

A former Welch staffer and Vermont assistant attorney general, Gray’s early momentum appears to have slowed over the summer as her rival solidified progressive support. Balint’s strength has been bolstered by endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the state’s popular independent progressive, and, importantly, state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who dropped out of the primary in May and immediately backed Balint, helping to consolidate support on the left.

The contest for Vermont’s lone House seat was triggered by Leahy’s announcement last November that he would retire at the end of the term after nearly 50 years on the job. Welch quickly announced his candidacy to replace Leahy, which cleared the way for the rare open-seat race.

Leahy has not formally endorsed Gray, though he has donated to her cause and said he voted for her. His wife, Marcelle Leahy, endorsed Gray, who also has the support of moderate former Vermont Govs. Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin.

Welch, who won the seat in 2006 when it last came open, has largely steered clear of the primary except to praise the women on the ballot. He won reelection in 2020 with more than 67% of the vote.

Balint and Gray have raised similar amounts of cash over the course of the race, but Balint has benefited from significant outside spending — which Gray’s campaign has repeatedly criticized. The LGBTQ Victory Fund’s PAC has been the biggest player, backing Balint, who is gay, and investing about $1 million on her behalf. The Congressional Progressive Caucus’ campaign arm has also spent nearly $200,000 for Balint.

Rich Clark, a professor at Castleton University and Vermont pollster, said that with so little separating the candidates on policy, branding has become a more influential element in the race.

“I don’t think this is an issues race,” Clark said, a factor that has added more weight to endorsements and the “progressive versus moderate impression” among voters.

Though Gray and Balint are, indeed, closely aligned on almost every major issue, Balint has emerged as the progressive standard-bearer, winning support from Sanders and both senators from neighboring Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is also backing Balint, along with other leading national figures on the left.

“When it comes down to policy, there’s not a lot of space between them, but when it comes down to image, I think there is,” Clark said. “High turnout for us has been about 25% (in primary elections), so we’re not talking about a real representation of the Democratic Party in Vermont. It’ll be the most engaged and they’ll tend to be on the progressive side.”

Balint has outflanked Gray on the left with her clear support for stripping qualified immunity from police, which protects officers from most private lawsuits. Gray has been noncommittal, suggesting in a recent debate that she might support such a move should it extend to a wider swath of public officials.

But even as they sought to carve out distinctions in their views on policing and drug policy, it was a remark by Balint in May, during a forum with members of the Vermont Progressive Party, that provided the debate’s sharpest exchange.

Balint, at a gathering with VPP members this spring, said it would “be an absolute catastrophe if the candidate representing us on the left was Molly Gray,” whom she labeled a “corporatist Democrat.”

During the debate, Gray jabbed Balint over “negative attacks” and said that while Balint subsequently backed off the comment, “There’s never been a personal apology.”

“You can take the opportunity tonight if you want,” Gray said.

Balint did.

“If you took offense to that comment, I apologize,” she said. “If you found it hurtful, I apologize.”

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