Becca Balint wins Democratic nomination for U.S. House
Becca Balint, the first woman to serve as Vermont's Senate president pro tem, has won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives in her first statewide campaign.
Six months ago, in a poll commissioned by Vermont Public, only 7% of Vermonters said they planned to vote for Becca Balint in the Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives.
The state senator from Brattleboro has gained some ground since then. And on Tuesday night, the former middle school teacher — who’s never run for statewide office before — won her party’s nomination with 62% of the vote with just under 40% of precincts reporting.
At an election night party in her hometown of Brattleboro Tuesday night, Balint, the first woman to serve as Vermont's Senate president pro tem, credited her supporters for the victory.
“For the first time in history in Vermont, it looks like a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community is probably going to go to Congress,” Balint said. “It’s finally our time.”
Balint’s rapid ascent to the heights of Vermont’s political universe comes as no surprise to her supporters. And her human touch with politics has struck a chord with voters.
Balint’s closest competitor on Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, finished second with 36% of the vote.
Dr. Louis Meyers received less than 2% of the votes cast in the Democratic primary for U.S. House.
“Becca Balint has this incredible, rare and sort of innate ability to listen to others' concerns, issues, struggles."Essex state Rep. Alyssa Black
Balint, who in November will look to secure Vermont’s first open seat in Congress since 2006, has vowed to advance a progressive policy agenda that includes Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, gun control and criminal justice reform.
But for the Vermonters who’ve been energized by her campaign, such as East Dorset resident Kate Levine, it’s Balint’s emotional bearing that resonated loudest.
During her sophomore year at Burr and Burton Academy, Kate Levine took a class on U.S. politics.
“And every so often the headmaster would have some like, political candidates come to his place, and they would like, do their little spiel,” Levine told Vermont Public.
Levine said the candidates’ presentations always played like a boring theater. And so she wasn’t exactly filled with anticipation when a state senator from Windham County came to meet with her class.
“And I kind of thought it was going to be kind of like every other politician,” Levine said. “Like, I’ve watched interviews with politicians, and it can annoy me so much, because the way they talk is very scripted and unnatural.”
Balint, Levine said, was different.
“Like immediately different. Like she talked to you like she cared about you, and wanted to understand your point of view,” Levine recalled. “Just kind of a very different vibe than other politicians.”
Levine didn’t vote for Balint on Tuesday — she’s only 16.
But she spent her summer volunteering for Balint’s campaign. And after that early bout of disillusionment with the political establishment, Levine’s faith is restored.
“I want politics to be about doing what’s best for the people and always improving our lives and our environment that we grow up in,” she said. “And I think Becca definitely represents that for me.”
Balint is a savvy politician whose ability to forge strategic alliances made her one of the most influential lawmakers in Montpelier. But it’s her human touch, according to Essex Rep. Alyssa Black, that’s made her the leader that so many Vermonters are apparently ready to follow.
“Becca Balint has this incredible, rare and sort of innate ability to listen to others' concerns, issues, struggles,” Black said,
Black first met Balint in 2019, when she was looking for a state lawmaker to introduce legislation that would create a waiting period for gun purchases.
Black’s son had died by suicide just a few months prior. She said Balint’s capacity for empathy was unlike anything she’d experienced from other politicians.
“It’s like she finds a little piece of herself that identifies with that,” Black said. “And then once it’s personal to her, you know, she’s just dogged in her determination to do something about it. And she takes it on as if it is personal.”
Balint’s victory on Tuesday was not preordained.
Gray began the race as the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. She was the only candidate to have run a statewide campaign before. She also had active support from key members of Sen. Patrick Leahy’s electoral apparatus.
But Balint’s emotional intimacy one-on-one translated surprisingly well to the statewide stage. And while most candidates were trying to make their cases to voters, Balint was trying to forge relationships.
“She’s retained an authenticity, in the sense that she doesn’t come across as a polished politician,” said Matt Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College.
Dickinson said Gray, ultimately to her detriment, was more conventionally regimented in her political messaging.
“There was a tendency I think early in the campaign to fall back on, ‘I grew up on a farm and I’m a fourth generation Vermonter,’ and hope that that appeal to roots would be enough,” he said.
"The pro-Becca PACs are spending to win this race."Lt. Gov. Molly Gray
The candidates diverged ideologically as well, especially in the final weeks of the campaign.
To Dickinson, the race between Gray and Balint became a microcosm of a broader debate within the Democratic Party.
“And it’s a debate between what we call the traditional liberal approach championed by Sen. Leahy, which involves, when necessary, compromise … versus the more principled, uncompromising stand that we associate with a Bernie Sanders,” Dickinson said.
It’s a distinction that Balint, who in early July won a crucial endorsement from Sanders, has worked hard to exploit.
During her bid to win an endorsement from the Vermont Progressive Party in May, Balint called Gray a “corporatist Democrat.” And she said it’d be an “absolute catastrophe” for the left if Gray won the Democratic nomination.
Gray seized on that attack during a recent televised debate.
“How can Vermonters expect that you’ll act any differently in Congress than you have on this campaign, where you’ve launched negative attacks?” Gray asked Balint. “Isn’t that the problem that we see in Congress today?”
Balint used the opportunity to apologize for her earlier remarks.
Gray also went after Balint on the issue of super PACS, three of which — the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Equality PAC and Congressional Progress Caucus — have spent more than $1.3 million on television and digital advertisements and direct mailings in support of Balint.
“The pro-Becca PACS are spending to win this race,” Gray said.
Gray’s shots didn’t land very hard. In a recent poll of Vermonters, more than 70% said they have a favorable opinion of Becca Balint. Less than half of respondents said they have a positive view of Molly Gray.
Balint has also been more popular than Gray among political figures in Vermont.
More than half of the Democrats serving in the Vermont Legislature endorsed Balint. And her appeal has transcended ideological lines.
David Coates for instance, who joined Republican Gov. Phil Scott in criticizing the Legislature’s pension reform bill earlier this year, endorsed Balint, as did Grand Isle Sen. Dick Mazza, a conservative Democrat who’s backed Scott in general election races.
At a recent campaign event in Montpelier, Balint, who’s gay, told Vermont Public that she’d been bullied as a kid.
“And certainly was made fun of for not just being perhaps more masculine, more of a tomboy, but also I was a very heavyset kid, and was on the receiving end of a lot of mean things said about me and my body, and so I understand what that feels like,” Balint said.
There’s a throughline, she said, between the bullying she experienced as a child, and the politician she is today.
“You know, somewhere inside of me is still that 12-, 13-year-old kid who wants to make sure that we’re making sure everybody has a place,” she said.
Between now and November, Balint will work to find her place in history as the first woman to represent Vermont in Congress.
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