Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Primary

Well, primary night turned out to be quite a bit less exciting than we thought. With a few exceptions, the races that seemed unpredictable weren’t, in the end, very close at all. What follows is a selection of post-midnight thoughts, none of which are about the gubernatorial race because the primaries were uncompetitive.

1. Those unbelievable polls were right about the Democratic primary for Congress. Becca Balint beat the metaphorical pants off Molly Gray. In the end, the margin was 23 percentage points. Remember back in January, when Gray had gotten off to a hot start and Balint was entering the race at the same time she had to manage the Senate Democratic Caucus? Seemed like Gray had the edge. Hell, it seemed like Balint might get squeezed between centrist Gray and progressive Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale.

I think Gray did have the edge at the time. So what happened? Balint caught fire with the Democratic electorate while Gray’s bio-heavy, policy-lite approach wore out its welcome. When it became clear that Balint was pulling ahead, Gray started flailing around, presenting herself as a pragmatist (be still, my heart) while depicting Balint as a Bernie Sanders clone. Yes, Bernie, Vermont’s most popular politician. Gray’s attack lines were implausible from the get-go. Did anyone really believe that Balint was an uncompromising ideologue or a captive of shady out-of-state money? No. For an attack to be effective, it has to be plausibly based in a candidate’s real or perceived weaknesses.

2. Everyone involved in Gray’s campaign has some soul-searching to do. Not only because they lost badly despite the very public blessing of St. Patrick Leahy, but also because they burned a lot of bridges in Democratic circles by going negative.

2a. Is this the end of Team Leahy’s dominance in Democratic politics? They bet big on Gray, and she rolled snake eyes. Leahy will remain a beloved figure but a sidelined one. His team, meanwhile, soiled themselves and dragged Leahy down with them. If there was any belief that they had the corner on political savvy in Vermont, well, that balloon has burst.

3. Oh Lord, the Republicans. They emerge from the primary with a statewide “ticket” of Gerald Malloy, Liam Madden, Phil Scott, Joe Benning, H. Brooke Paige, H. Brooke Paige, H. Brooke Paige, and H. Brooke Paige. The VTGOP now has a few days to cobble together a slate of candidates to supplant Paige, and none of them will have a prayer of a chance. Besides Scott, Benning is the only winner who’s not a walking, talking joke, and his campaign is operating on a shoestring. He’ll be a decent candidate, but he’s not going to win.

4. Christina Nolan, OMG. She managed to lose to Malloy, a rookie candidate who only moved to Vermont two years ago, had no money and the world’s worst yard signs. The signature moment of her campaign was the unintentionally hilarious video of her standing in the condiment aisle of a supermarket and blandly bemoaning a mayonnaise shortage. Malloy’s victory makes it clear that (a) Nolan was a terrible candidate and (b) the Republican base has tilted so far to the right that it’s totally out of step with the Vermont electorate. They just keep going deeper into the wilderness.

4a. Jay Shepard, Super Genius. The Republican National Committeeman’s consulting firm billed the underfunded Nolan campaign for tens of thousands of dollars, and drove it straight off a cliff. He is the living embodiment of all that is wrong with the Vermont Republican Party.

4c. It can’t escape notice that every single statewide Republican winner was a man. Nolan lost to Malloy. Liam Madden prevailed over two Republican women. All the other candidates were men. Meanwhile, the Democrats are electing women all over the place. Is there a strain of misogyny in the VTGOP electorate? Survey says “Yes.”

5. The debates for U.S. House and Senate should be high entertainment for those fond of the Roman Colosseum. Peter Welch facing Gerald Malloy? Balint against… oh yeah, Liam Madden? Might as well be Lions v. Christians.

6. David Zuckerman’s comeback takes a step forward, but only because the mainstream slash moderate vote was split three ways. Zuckerman won with an uninspiring 44%. Kitty Toll, who’d never before run for office outside of Danville, got 39%. If Patricia Preston and Charlie Kimbell had withdrawn and endorsed Toll, she would have stood a very good chance of winning. Kimbell was a centrist, and Preston’s backing came from the center as well. Hard to see their votes going to Zuckerman.

7, Poor Chris Winters. He had the very public backing of outgoing Secretary of State Jim Condos. Even before Condos announced his retirement, he’d begun to share the spotlight with Winters. Eventually, Condos dispensed with the fig leaf of neutrality and endorsed Winters. As of this writing the race is too close to call, but Sarah Copeland Hanzas has held the lead throughout the evening and there are hardly any votes left to count.

8. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but if Copeland Hanzas wins, she will have taken a big step up the political ladder after years of beating her head against a low ceiling. Twice she tried to run for House Speaker, and twice she was brushed aside. After seeming to hit her limit as a committee chair, Copeland Hanzas decided to cash in all her chips and run for Secretary of State. A victory would put her in line for a future run for governor. Oh yeah, getting ahead of myself.

9. Unlike Winters, Charity Clark had no problem at all in succeeding her boss. The Deputy Attorney General scored a thumping victory over Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault, and will now saunter to victory in November. And like Copeland Hanzas, she’ll enter the VIP Room of potential candidates for higher office.

10. The biggest delight of my evening was Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George’s landslide win over centrist challenger Ted Kenney. The incumbent’s advantage was probably the biggest factor, but Kenney’s fearmongering and nuzzling up to police were rejected at the polls. George’s impressive margin of victory — better than 20 percentage points — will validate her progressive approach to the job and should encourage other progressives to compete for prosecutorial posts. That’s a big win for criminal justice reform.

11. The reapportionment of the Chittenden County Senate district into three parts is turning out to be just as disastrous for the Democratic Party as I thought it was. They could have easily drawn boundaries that would have ensured an entirely Democratic delegation. Given the Dem dominance in county politics, no one would have batted an eye. Instead, the reapportionment committee gave us a Chittenden North district with a Republican lean and a Chittenden Central district seemingly drawn with Progressive interests at heart.

The result? Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, a vociferous Prog, will glide into the Senate and longtime Bernie Sanders buddy Erhard Mahnke may follow. As I write this, he trails Martine Gulick by TWO VOTES with 99% of the vote counted. Chittenden North may cost the Democrats their Senate supermajority. Republican Leland Morgan should be a strong favorite against Irene Wrenner, who’s little known outside of Essex and is a divisive figure in her town.

12. There will be a bunch of new faces entering the state Senate in January, further diluting the power of the chamber’s Old Guard. Besides Vyhovsky, there’s Rep. Becca White finishing first in the Windsor County primary over eternal incumbents Alison Clarkson and Dick McCormack, and Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson winning a Senate nomination in the Washington County district. The two new senators from Windham County will be former Rep. Nader Hashim and longtime local government figure Wendy Harrison. I’m sorry to see Wichie Artu finish out of the running, but Hashim and Harrison should be a formidable delegation. Both will be miles better than Jeanette White.

13. The Republicans have some truly terrible legislative candidates. I’ll highlight three for now, but I’m sure I’ll be bringing back “Dregs of the Ballot” to expose more of them. Mark Coester, of the fascist-emblazoned semi truck, finished first in the race for two Republican Senate nominations in Windham County. Republican voters in Barre showd their true colors. Formerly respectable former state’s attorney Tom Kelly, now an anti-vaxxer and God knows what else, finished first in a three-way race for two Republican nominations. Electoral pest supreme Brian Judd has a narrow lead for a House nomination in Barre. If his margin holds up, the city’s GOP voters will have chosen those two crackpots over city councilor Michael Deering II.

Okay, I lied, 14. The Progressive Party staved off a potentially disastrous cycle. Zuckerman is on his way back to the lieutenant governor’s office, Vyhovsky will effectively take Anthony Pollina’s place as the Senate’s Prog firebrand, and Mahnke might prevail as well. The Progs are still fighting uphill, but they’re still fighting.

That’s all for now. More thoughts may emerge, but it’s way past my bedtime. Nighty-night.


4 thoughts on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Primary

  1. Lee Russ

    And you didn’t even mention Kathi Tarrant who now carries the Republican Banner into the general election for the House seat in the Washington-Chittenden district.

  2. Lee Russ

    The GOP Lt. Gov race produced some “interesting” results. Not only did Greg Thayer’s extremism net him 45% of the vote, but he won in almost all of the towns in the southern half of the state, Take a look at the map on this page:

  3. Doug W.

    “Gray’s attack lines were implausible from the get-go. Did anyone really believe that Balint was an uncompromising ideologue or a captive of shady out-of-state money? No. For an attack to be effective, it has to be plausibly based in a candidate’s real or perceived weaknesses.”

    Spot on, John! I think many people saw right through Molly’s hypocrisy on campaign finance. You can’t call foul while spending the bulk of your time soliciting donations from lobbyists.

    Becca will be an amazing Congresswoman! Kudos to her and the team for a job well done.

  4. Steve West

    “ The two new senators from Windham County will be former Rep. Nader Hashim and longtime local government figure Wendy Harrison.”

    Not long ago you wrote: “Independent hopeful Tim Wessel has raised a total of $7,513 and spent $4,207; that level of spending is a little worrying for a candidate who isn’t even on the August ballot. He should be playing the long game.”

    Why are you counting out Tim Wessel already? Admittedly, he’s a friend, but he’s also a strong candidate who hopes that running as an independent helps him reach to voters outside of the primary process. Tim’s basically a progressive mixed with fiscal conservatism, which appeals to many across the political spectrum. He has lots of supporters here in Windham County, has been working in public service on the Selectboard for five+ years, and his name recognition is arguably as high or higher than either Democratic candidate.

    As I said, Tim’s a good friend so forgive my enthusiasm. And Nader and Wendy are also excellent candidates. I just hope you’ll watch and write about Tim as well in the coming months.


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