Far too early rampant speculation alert!
Becca Balint’s one-sided primary victory leaves only token obstacles in her path to Congress. This is obvious.
What’s less obvious is that it puts Balint on track to become the most powerful person in Vermont Democratic politics. This is the extra dimension of the primary’s import. It was a hinge moment in the party’s progress.
Follow me, if you will, down a wary-too-soon but perfectly logical rabbit hole.
Patrick Leahy and Peter Welch are extremely powerful presences in the Vermont Democratic Party, more so than is visible publicly. (Bernie Sanders is treated with veneration but as a resolute independent, he doesn’t have the same level of influence.)
Leahy is about to exit the stage and take on an emeritus-equivalent position in the party. He’ll have a say as long as he draws breath, but he won’t have the power of the office anymore. His people took a huge hit in the primary. Most or all backed Molly Gray, or even worked on her campaign. They might never recover, especially given how negative Gray went in the closing weeks of the primary campaign. That won’t endear any of them to Balint.
Peter Welch will assume Leahy’s top spot, but he’s 75 years old. I suspect he’ll serve a six-year victory lap in the Senate and then ride off into the sunset. I hope so; we’ve had enough of straight white graybeards representing us in Congress. And if he does retire, Balint would have first claim on succeeding him if she wants to. And why wouldn’t she?
There’s a good chance Bernie will be gone from the Senate before 2029. Even if he’s still around, he’s not really a Democrat and his focus is much more on national issues than on little old Vermont. If all this plays out, Balint will suddenly be the senior member of our Congressional delegation. That would put her in an unmatched position of influence in the party. Well, if we have a strong Democratic governor by then, she might share the limelight. But she’d be first among equals if nothing more.
And that would be a good thing for the party. She’s unrivaled in political skill. She’s a living, breathing embodiment of the kind of inclusivity needed in a vibrant party. She’d use her influence to lead the party in positive directions, not to put herself on a pedestal.
If this seems a bit too recent, well, look at her record. She entered the state Senate in 2014. Two years later, she was voted Semate Majority Leader, a remarkable accomplishment in a chamber that values tradition and tenure over anything else. She did a bang-up job, holding the caucus together and smoothing the rough edges of Tim Ashe’s leadership. And usually being a buffer between Ashe and the press.
When Ashe left to make an ill-fated bid for lieutenant governor, Balint succeeded him and in less than two years, she put her mark on the office. The Senate functioned better than it had in years. She even managed to tamp down the Senate’s normal disdain for the House.
Then she gives up her secure post to make a run for Congress in a crowded field. Kesha Ram Hinsdale was considered a top-flight competitor, and Molly Gray had yet to record her first setback in a brief political career. Plus, Balint still had to lead the Senate, which is more than a full-time job itself.
She pulled it off. Her campaign steadily gained momentum even as she divided her time. She came from behind to knock out Ram Hinsdale and then make surprisingly quick work of Gray. In the process, her campaign inspired an authentic wave of enthusiasm among primary voters.
And now she’s on her way to Washington, which had better look out. Balint is not to be underestimated, which is the usual fate of the first-term Congresscritter. She is not only undefeated in her political life, she’s consistently punched above her weight class.
There is no evidence to suggest that this will stop anytime soon. She’s well on her way to leading the state Democratic Party. And that seems to be a very attractive prospect.