Game Changer

Balint, casually breaking the fourth wall

If there was any doubt about which Vermont media outlet provides the biggest platform, it was dispelled early this morning when state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale announced — exclusively on Channel 3 — that she was ending her candidacy for U.S. House and endorsing Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint. Not on VTDigger, not in Seven Days, not on VPR. Because as much as people like me get their news from those three outlets, TV can’t be beat for reaching a wide audience. Specifically WCAX. Although it’s becoming increasingly genericized under Gray Television’s ownership, it’s still the traditional powerhouse of Vermont television.

But enough about that. On to the story itself. Ram Hinsdale folded her tent and filed for re-election to the state Senate, where she might become a real force in a chamber that will have at least 10 new members come January. She may have stumbled this time, but she’s young, smart and hungry. She’ll be back on the statewide ballot.

Ram Hinsdale and Balint were competing for the progressive vote. Balint also had significant credibility in the Democratic mainstream, but she’d staked out policy positions that were as progressive as Ram Hinsdale’s. Balint has now earned the endorsement of her major challenger on the left, and must be considered the front-runner in the Democratic primary.

As much as anything else, this move is evidence of the deep disdain many Dems (and Progs) feel for Lt. Gov. Molly Gray. This is an “anybody but Gray” move.

Many don’t like Gray because she is clearly, despite her protestations to the contrary, the establishment candidate in the race. She’s getting far more money from political power brokers than Balint. She makes progressive sounds, but her policy positions are closer to the center than her competitors’. As in in her 2020 run for lieutenant governor, her campaign is centered more on personality and life story and less on policy. Her people don’t like that characterization, and there is some unfair stereotyping involved, but that narrative is the logical sequela of her campaign strategy.

Two other things play into the Gray antipathy. That thing about her voting record continues to stick to her, as it should, and makes her look like an opportunistic parachutist. Also, and this is something I really don’t like, there’s the way that Gray and other young candidates are told to wait their turn. That’s nonsense, and it needs to stop.

But it hasn’t stopped yet, and it’s a clear disadvantage for Gray.

As is the fact that her political playbook isn’t as effective this year as it was on 2020. Why? Because this is a higher-profile race with stronger competition. And she hasn’t shown much growth as a candidate.

Even before today, there were signs that the race was trending toward Balint. She took the lion’s share of endorsements from Democratic officeholders. The latest campaign finance reports showed Balint in the best position. Ram Hinsdale had the best first-quarter haul, but many of her donors were maxed out and she was spending money fast. As of the end of March, she had only about half as much cash on hand as her major competitors. Gray had outraised Balint overall, but Gray’s fundraising momentum was slowing while Balint was picking up steam. Gray trailed Balint in cash on hand by about $28,000.

Not to mention that Gray had accepted quite a few donations earmarked for the general election. Those dollars can’t be spent before the primary. As a result, Gray actually trailed Balint by $67,000 in spendable cash on hand.

But as I always say, money can’t buy you elections. It helps, to be sure. Aside from her financial edge, Balint has proven to be a truly formidable candidate for statewide office. She entered the race at a tremendous disadvantage: She had a more than full-time job running the Senate, while Gray had a nothingburger job and Ram Hinsdale didn’t have any management responsibilities.

Also, it’s very difficult for a legislative leader to project a strong agenda. She has to get stuff through her chamber, which is a process of compromise and consensus. She could have been weighed down by her caucus. Instead, she managed to balance running the Senate and pulling off some major victories while also building a strong campaign team and being more than competitive financially.

We’ll have to wait for her memoirs to get the whole story (as if anyone in #vtpoli writes memoirs), but it’s clear in retrospect that Balint has been carefully building to this point for years. She managed to maintain a high profile and make no enemies. Even when she had to act as Tim Ashe’s ramrod, she did it with a genius-level diplomatic touch.

It’s also obvious that she’s been building connections and support across the state. It’s not easy for someone from Windham County to compete in a statewide race. Balint has done it with relative ease. She outmuscled Ram Hinsdale, who had a strong presence in Vermont’s most populated area.

Is the race over? Team Balint won’t take it for granted. They see Gray as a strong competitor with a proven ability to raise money. Gray has emerged, whether she wants the label or not, as the establishment choice. She has, as I wrote previously, “D.C. connections and very real ties to the Welch/Pat Leahy orbit.”

Gray has also, let us not forget, won a statewide election. Balint has not.

No moss will grow on the rolling stone of Team Balint. This will still be a fascinating, competitive race for the Democratic nomination (with the winner poised to steamroll the Republican nominee) and a real test of how strong a hold the Welch/Leahy axis has on Vermont Democratic politics.

Besides, August primary, low turnout, more unpredictable than November. Name recognition may well mean a lot, and Gray’s got the edge there.

All that said, Ram Hinsdale’s withdrawal makes Balint the clear favorite to emerge from the primary and become the successor to Peter Welch. It’s hers to lose.

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